With Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's signature on a controversial law Monday evening, Utah became the first state in the nation to require doctors to give anesthesia to women having an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later.
As the Associated Press pointed out, the measure "is based on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain at that point."
Doctors in Utah and nationwide have long questioned that assertion.
A "rigorous scientific review of the available evidence on fetal pain" published (pdf) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005 found that "fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester," while a 2010 review by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that "connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation and, as most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception, it can be concluded that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation."
Indeed, according to the Salt Lake City Weekly, the bill's own sponsor admitted as much at a hearing in early March. Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble—the accountant who introduced the legislation—said at that point "that the science is inconclusive on whether a [20-week-old] fetus can feel pain, so 'to be on the safe side' heavy anesthesia should be administered."
The City Weekly continued:
But administering the anesthetic, three maternal-fetal doctors from Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah told the committee, can be extremely risky to the woman, including a “high risk of aspirating and death.”...Doctors Alexandra Eller, Sean Esplin, and Doug Richard had strong words for committee members.
“I don't want to be required to tell my patients things that are untrue,” Dr. Richard told lawmakers. Esplin agreed, adding that “I wouldn’t come up here and testify about a tax bill because I’m not a tax expert; but on this subject I am and this isn’t truthful with patients.”
Women in Utah have always had the choice whether or not to opt for anesthesia during an abortion; the new law takes that choice away, mandating that doctors administer an anesthetic or analgesic when performing an abortion at or after 20 weeks. Abortions are prohibited in Utah after the point when the fetus is viable, which is generally understood to be between 22 and 24 weeks.
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The Salt Lake Tribune noted that the law's "impact would not be widespread. Just 17 women aborted a pregnancy after 20 weeks in 2014, the most recent year for which numbers were available."
But Karrie Galloway, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Utah, told the Tribune that the measure is an example of the governor and Bramble inserting their judgment in the place of a woman's physician.
"You're talking to a woman who is being told that Curt Bramble, a CPA, is better at practicing medicine than the physician I have chosen," Galloway said. "That's what's infuriating."
The Tribune added:
Galloway said she was most frustrated that Bramble refused to talk to fetal specialists and listen to those who testified at the legislative hearing on the bill, people Galloway said were "treated so shabbily."
"I mean, we have fetal medical specialists speaking and they were discounted by a citizen who said, 'I read it on the Internet and therefore it must be true,'" Galloway said. "That's how we do policy here in Utah."
When the bill went before the state Senate earlier this month, the Deseret News reported that "Bramble said premature children are surviving today at 20 weeks. He called abortion 'barbaric,' 'horrendous,' and a 'death sentence' for the unborn child and that he would reverse the [Supreme Court's] 1973 [Roe v. Wade] decision if he could."
Meanwhile, a new study from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published in the journal Perspectives of Sexual and Reproductive Health, shows Utah's law mandating at least a 72-hour waiting period between a woman's consultation visit and her abortion procedure increases financial, logistical, and emotional hardship on a woman seeking to end her pregnancy.
"As a leading health care provider to more than 46,000 people throughout Utah, these findings are deeply concerning," Galloway said in response to the study, "but unfortunately they aren't surprising. We see what this law puts our patients through every single day—and we know this law was never really about empowering a woman in Utah with the information she needs to make her own decision about her pregnancy, it has always been about making a safe and legal abortion more difficult to get."
A separate report (pdf) issued earlier this month found that the majority of state-level anti-abortion bills are, as the National Partnership on Women and Families put it, "based on common anti-choice lies."