Why Utah is making men pay women's pregnancy costs

By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington

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Fathers in Utah are now legally obliged to pay half the cost of a mother's medical care related to pregnancy and delivery.

Supporters of the law - which is thought to be the first of its kind in the US - say it will help alleviate the financial burden of motherhood for American women.

The legislation passed with bipartisan support - but it raises questions about the cost of parenting in the US, as well as the state's growing roster of anti-abortion legislation.

What does the law say?

Utah's Shared Medical Costs law requires biological fathers to pay half of a mother's insurance premiums - her monthly health insurance costs - during pregnancy as well as all other related medical fees, including the birth of the child.

For US women with insurance, giving birth costs an average of $4,500 (£3,254) out of pocket, according to a study in the Health Affairs journal that tracked costs from 2008 - 2015.

For those without coverage, this figure could more than double: the not-for-profit Fair Health organisation reported the average as closer to $10,000.

If paternity of the child is in question, fathers are able to delay payments until paternity is proven.

The payment process is not automatic. Similar to child support, if a woman does not seek assistance, the father will not be notified.

The same financial obligation does not apply if a woman wants to terminate the pregnancy.

Biological fathers will not be required to contribute to the cost of an abortion if it is sought without their consent, except in the case of rape or if the mother's life is in danger.

The cost of an abortion, without insurance, is roughly $1,000 (£722) according to Planned Parenthood.

The law, which will take effect on 5 May, passed unanimously with bipartisan support in the state's Senate but faced Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives.

Why was it introduced?

One of the bill's sponsors, state Congressman Brady Brammer, has said that he wanted a bill that was "actually pro-life" following a spate of anti-abortion bills introduced in the state.

"You can support pregnant moms and new babies and it doesn't have to be about abortion," Mr Brammer, an anti-abortion Republican, told the BBC.

Since joining the legislature in 2019, Mr Brammer has seen a number of abortion bills introduced. Each time, "they're contentious and they're emotional", he said. But at the "core" of the issue, "there's someone in a really tough position in life, making a real tough decision in life".

"Perhaps we could make that situation a little bit easier," he said.

Many pro-choice activists reject the claim that an abortion is an act of desperation, often made by someone who is, as Mr Brammer described, "scared, alone and poor".

In the US, 24% of women will have an abortion by the time they turn 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute - a research organisation in favour of abortion access. But of these women, nearly half live below the federal poverty line.

What is the criticism?

Pro-choice advocates and women's groups have said they support efforts to lessen the costs of pregnancy and childcare.

But this law is not the best approach, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Katrina Barker told NBC News.

"Expanded Medicaid [low-income health scheme], better insurance coverage, equitable access to reproductive health care, and paid family leave are just a few ways policy makers could do much more", Ms Baker said.

And the pregnancy assistance will do little to alleviate the financial burden of having a child in the US.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, families will spend an average of $233,610 raising a child born in 2015 - a figure that does not include the cost of college.

media captionCoronavirus: "Pregnancy during a pandemic is terrifying"

Despite Mr Brammer's insistence that the new legislation can "support life" without being about abortion, it has still stirred up existing controversy about abortion access in Utah.

For some anti-abortion activists in his state, it is part of a legal web they hope will further restrict abortion access.

"We very much consider this a pro-life bill," Merrilee Boyack, chairwoman of Abortion-Free Utah, told the BBC. Ms Boyack has previously said her organisation's goal is to make abortion "unthinkable".

"I think a whole range of laws in this arena are going to be needed to be effective in supporting a culture of life," Ms Boyack said.

Republicans in the state, including Mr Brammer, have made it increasingly difficult to seek an abortion in Utah.

In 2019, they passed a proposal to ban elective abortions 18 weeks after conception. Women seeking an abortion before that time must receive in-person counselling regarding their pregnancy, which includes information that could discourage them from an abortion, and then wait 72 hours before the procedure is provided.

And last year, Utah lawmakers passed a so-called "trigger ban" that would bar nearly all abortions if the 1973 Supreme Court decision that first legalised abortion across the country were ever overturned.

Graphics by Angélica Casas

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