Utah's tough abortion curbs upheld

April 11, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Staff Writer

A federal judge in Utah ruled yesterday that the state's tough new law criminalizing abortion does not force pregnant women into slavery and does not make them prisoners of the religious views of the Mormon Church.

In a 14-page ruling dealing with some of the newer constitutional challenges being mounted against state abortion restrictions, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene of Salt Lake City rejected most of those complaints.

He said there was no need even to hold a trial to convince him to turn aside claims that abortion curbs violate the 13th Amendment ban on "involuntary servitude" and the First Amendment ban on state endorsement of one religion's beliefs.

The Utah law is considered to be one of the strictest of the new round of state laws passed since the Supreme Court in 1989 gave states wider freedom to restrict abortion. In Utah, it now is a serious crime carrying stiff penalties for a doctor to perform an abortion unless it is necessary to save the woman's life or to avoid "grave damage" to her health, to end a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or to avoid birth of a child with "grave defects."

Judge Greene said that he would not uphold that law in all respects at this time, because he wants to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a final decision on a major test case from Pennsylvania, which may require the court to re-examine the basic 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade.

The Utah judge said the coming decision by the Supreme Court "will be of great relevance" to the issue of whether the Utah law does or does not interfere with the right to privacy -- the constitutional foundation of abortion rights.

The other new state laws that go the furthest to make abortion a crime -- those adopted in Louisiana and the territory of Guam -- have been struck down by federal judges, and those states are now appealing.

In the Utah case, one of the challengers' new claims was that the state law violates the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery after the Civil War.

Judge Greene turned that complaint aside, saying "it strains credulity to equate the carrying of a child to term with 'compulsory labor.'

Besides, the judge added, a pregnant Utah woman who chooses to have an abortion need only travel to another state that allows abortion.

Another new complaint was that the state law closely follows the anti-abortion beliefs of the Mormon Church, and thus amounts to an official endorsement of dogma as law. Judge Greene rejected that claim, too, saying that the state law seeking to protect "unborn children" is "as consistent with society's traditional moral framework as it is with any one of several religions."

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