High-risk pregnancy specialist shares concerns about Utah’s new trigger law

Jul 8, 2022, 6:28 PM | Updated: 8:15 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah physicians are coming together to push for language changes in Utah’s new trigger law.

The law was temporarily blocked for two weeks by a Third District Judge responding to a request from Planned Parenthood. Lawyers on both sides will present their arguments Monday.

Yet, even during this pause, a Utah doctor said she’s already seen a change in care.

Dr. Lexi Eller is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist for high-risk pregnancies. She came to Utah 16 years ago to train for the position and has been in the state ever since.

“I never left because I fell in love with the place and the people,” Eller said.

Her love and care for patients haven’t changed, but Eller worries that Utah’s new trigger law will change the level of care she can give.

“It’s very hard to create black and white situations,” she said. “Medicine is not a ‘yes,’ ‘no’ — you don’t always die or don’t die — you can’t always quantify risk in that way.”

It’s particularly complex for doctors dealing with high-risk situations either for the child or the mother.

Eller said about 97% of abortions happen before 12 weeks of gestation, but in her line of work, she deals with the rare situations often found in the other three percent.

“Those women who are later in their pregnancy and facing these very difficult choices are the women that we care for,” Eller said. “When laws place arbitrary, gestational age limits, they particularly target the most vulnerable women.”

It’s the most vulnerable that suffer from differences in medical and legislative terminology, something Eller said happened with Utah’s new law.

Words like “substantial and irreversible risk” leave physicians wondering what level of care they should give.

“What is substantial? It’s impossible for us to put numbers on these conditions,” Eller said. “So it’s impossible for anyone to legislate a number either because we don’t know how to meet that legal standard.”

Even the definition of abortion, Eller said, is different legally versus medically.

“The truth is that every OBGYN in some way is an abortion provider,” Eller said. “If a woman is facing life-threatening risk at some stage of pregnancy, they are often in a position to end that pregnancy to preserve her health or life.”

The new trigger law also requires victims of rape and sexual assault to have verifiable reports with law enforcement before having an abortion.

“This relationship between a pregnant person and her physician is a sacred space,” Eller said. “Patients will often talk with us and share with us things that they would never go to law enforcement about.”

Mixed in with these legal ambiguities, Eller said the new Utah trigger law also puts physicians in a tight position between adhering to their “standard of care,” which they were trained to practice, or the law.

“You’re being forced, in some ways, to put yourself at legal liability no matter what you do,” Eller said.

The consequences, in Eller’s perspective, come down to malpractice for ignoring the standard of care or a felony charge for not following Utah’s trigger law.

“These laws are dangerous on so many levels, and they really inhibit providers from wanting to even practice medicine in our state,” she said.

While hoping to change the language within the law itself, Eller said a group of Utah doctors is also hoping to focus efforts on reducing unwanted pregnancies.

“We wish that lawmakers could understand that this is about a physician and a patient relationship, and leaving healthcare to physicians is the right answer,” Eller said.

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High-risk pregnancy specialist shares concerns about Utah’s new trigger law