Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday signed a scary new law requiring doctors to sedate women who seek abortions at 20 weeks or later. With its passage, Utah has become the first state to mandate the use of anesthesia or painkillers in an abortion procedure, giving Utah a bizarre and distinct honor among states that have seemingly been competing to find the most creative way to deter women from having abortions in recent years.
The decision to administer anesthesia or analgesics is a medical one, carefully weighed by the doctor and patient. Now, however, it is a requirement in Utah, backed by a law founded in dubious science. The law requires doctors "to administer an anesthetic or analgesic to eliminate or alleviate organic pain" to a women seeking an abortion at 20 weeks or later, unless the abortion is deemed medically necessary due to danger to the mother's health, unless the analgesic or anesthesia would cause irreversible bodily harm or death to the mother, or if "two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine" say the abortion is necessary to expel a fetus with a lethal defect. Proponents of the bill, including bill sponsor State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, argue that requiring women to be sedated will ease any pain the fetus might feel during the procedure.
But doctors around the country are concerned that this regulation could put women at risk. As one doctor, who testified against the bill at a committee hearing earlier in March, told the Associated Press:
"You're telling women that they have to have something that's going to increase their risk based on a conclusion that is not true," said Dr. Sean Esplin of Intermountain Healthcare in Utah. He said that anesthesia or an analgesic would need to go through the woman in order to reach the fetus. Doctors could give a woman general anesthesia, which would make her unconscious and probably require a breathing tube, or a heavy dose of narcotics.
Dr. David Turok, who serves as an associate professor in the University of Utah Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, put the risks of general anesthesia more bluntly: "You never give those medicines if you don't have to."
There's another potential negative consequence to the law, according to the Utah Medical Association. From the Salt Lake Tribune:
Michelle McOmber, executive director of the UMA, said the bill would only exempt dire emergencies from the anesthesia requirement. She said in some instances, such as when a fetus isn't viable, doctors would let the mother deliver and hold the baby as it dies. Under Bramble's bill, she said, anesthesia would have to be administered and the baby extracted surgically."It's actually more cruel to do it that way," McOmber said.
In fact, the law now states "that substantial medical evidence from studies concludes that an unborn child who is at least 20 weeks gestational age may be capable of experiencing pain during an abortion procedure." However, as the Washington Post reports, that's not really true: "The idea that 20-week-old fetuses can feel anything is disputed; a 2005 review of more than 300 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester (28 weeks)."
Bramble, the bill's sponsor, is firmly anti-abortion and had initially hoped to ban abortions after 20 weeks, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, but he was told that such a law would probably challenged on constitutional grounds. This measure was his next best option. "There's nothing natural [with abortion]," he told the newspaper. "In fact, it's barbaric. … In this quote 'medical procedure,' let's call it what it is. It's killing babies. And if we're going to kill that baby, we ought to protect it from pain."
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