Utah abortion anesthesia

Utah Governor Signs Abortion Bill Requiring Anesthesia After 20 Weeks

Utah’s Republican governor has signed into law a controversial bill requiring women undergoing an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy to have the procedure done under general anesthesia, the New York Daily News is reporting.

Herbert, whose spokesperson Jon Cox describes him as “adamantly pro-life,” wants the abortion anesthesia requirement in place to protect the fetus from feeling any pain during the procedure.

“The governor is adamantly pro-life. He believes in not only erring on the side of life, but also minimizing any pain that may be caused to an unborn child.”

Utah law allows abortions at up until fetal viability — generally considered to be at about 22 weeks gestation. However, some observers believe that the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, which is why Herbert signed the bill requiring anesthesia.

Whether or not the fetus can feel any pain during an abortion is a matter of dispute.

According to anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, gestating babies at 20 weeks old can be observed “flinching, jerking, and recoiling” from sharp objects, such as scissors, used during an abortion. The following is according to Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist at the University of Toronto.

“At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, ready and waiting to receive pain signals from the body, and their electrical activity can be recorded by standard electroencephalography (EEG).”

Utah abortion anesthesia
Can a fetus feel pain after 20 weeks? Utah lawmakers believe so. [Image via Shutterstock/kalewa]
However, in a 2013 Salon report, Dr. Anne Davis, a second-trimester abortion provider, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center, and consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health, disputes the notion that a fetus can feel pain that early in the pregnancy.

“What we know in terms of the brain and the nervous system in a fetus is that the part of the brain that perceives pain is not connected to the part of the body that receives pain signals until about 26 weeks from the last menstrual period, which is about 24 weeks from conception.”

Dr. Davis also says that observations of fetuses appearing to be “flinching” during abortions are not actually evidence that the fetus is feeling pain, but rather simply a primitive reflex to outside stimuli.

Whether or not science actually supports the belief that 20-week-old fetuses can feel pain during an abortion, several states — largely conservative ones — have used this belief to attempt to pass restrictive abortion laws, beginning with Nebraska in 2010. Most recently, Montana attempted to pass an abortion anesthesia bill in 2015; though the bill cleared both houses of Montana’s legislature, the state’s Democratic governor vetoed it.

The Utah Medical Association, for its part, is “neutral” on the new law, according to CEO Michelle McOmber. However, the Association did convince the bill’s sponsor, Republican senator Curt Bramble of Provo, to change the words “[the fetus] is capable of experiencing pain” to “[the fetus] may be capable of experiencing pain.”

Laura Bunker, of the anti-abortion group United Families International, said that if there is even the slightest hint that a fetus may be experiencing pain during an abortion, every effort must be made to ensure its comfort.

For some Utah doctors, requiring anesthesia during an abortion is a risky and unnecessary step that puts women at risk.

Dr. David Turok, of the University of Utah’s obstetrics and gynecology department, said that doctors prefer to avoid giving medicines — particularly the narcotics used in anesthesia — if it can be avoided.

“You never give those medicines if you don’t have to.”

Do you believe Utah was right to require anesthesia during abortions? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image via Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm]