‘Fetal Anesthesia’

On March 29, 2015, SB 234 was signed into law making Utah the first and only state in the nation to require that doctors administer anesthesia or analgesic for women who are undergoing abortions at 20 weeks and later in order to prevent fetal pain. In 2015, Montana Governor, Steve Bullock, vetoed a very similar measure.

Those in favor of the law say that the regulation prevents fetuses from suffering during abortions. However, at the center of the debate in the legislature was the scientifically disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain during the procedure. Doctors in Utah and across the United States say there is no proof that fetuses are able to feel anything at that point in the pregnancy. Literature reviews from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists state that fetal pain is unlikely before the third trimester which begins at 28 weeks. Doctors opposing the law further say that sedating a woman during an abortion procedure puts the woman at risk for complications, and that it will interfere with the relationship between a physician and patient.

Senator Curt Bramble, the bill’s sponsor and a CPA with no known medical background, says the purpose of the bill is to protect those who have no voice. Bramble, who originally wanted to ban abortions after 20 weeks, further says that if abortions are going to be at all legal, then doctors must take steps to alleviate pain to the unborn child. However, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Utah, Dr. Leah Torres, has since emailed the governor because she does not understand what the law is requiring her to do. As ‘fetal anesthesia’ does not exist in standard medical practice, the law does not specify how doctors are supposed to administer anesthesia or analgesic in these situations. When the Montana Legislature proposed a similar law, which was later vetoed, physicians asked similar questions as those doctors were also unsure what exactly was being asked of them.

How safe is anesthesia for the mother? There are three main types of anesthesia: local, regional, and general, though the Utah legislature did not specify which type or how it should be administered. Doctors tend to avoid general anesthesia except in cases where they find it to be absolutely necessary. Dr. Esplin, a Utah doctor who testified at the committee hearing for this law, said, “women having abortions will either be placed under general anesthesia – meaning they’re unconscious and hooked up to a breathing tube – or sedated with a heavy dose of narcotics.” Those opposing the law say that not only is there no benefit for the woman in administering an anesthetic, but it adds an additional risk to the woman’s health.

Based on inconclusive evidence, women in Utah are now mandated to undergo anesthesia to have an abortion at 20 weeks and later, where previously, women were given a choice whether or not they wanted to be anesthetized. Fetal pain is a complicated and controversial topic in science, but the ability to feel pain at that specific point in gestation is, for now, unproven. In absence of scientific evidence proving fetal pain, perhaps such a bill is simply another way to limit abortion access for women.

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