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Utah becomes first state to require anesthesia for some abortions

FILE - March 10, 2016 file photo Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during an interview in Salt Lake City. The Utah governor is considering whether to sign a bill that would make Utah the first state to require doctors to give anesthesia to women having an abo
FILE - March 10, 2016 file photo Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during an interview in Salt Lake City. The Utah governor is considering whether to sign a bill that would make Utah the first state to require doctors to give anesthesia to women having an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Rick Bowmer, AP

Abortion foes are taking their fight to protect life to new territory, with a new law in Utah that requires anesthesia for abortions after 20 weeks and other efforts to ban abortion altogether by invoking the rights of the disabled.

The New York Times reported on the new law March 28, saying Utah is the first state to enact legislation designed to protect an aborted fetus from pain. Lawmakers in Montana passed a similar bill in 2015, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The Times ran an edited version of an Associated Press story that highlighted opposition to the bill, noting that the medical community is divided on whether or not a fetus can experience pain. The report also said the law poses a health risk for women, since you can't anesthetize a fetus without anesthetizing the mother.

“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,” Dr. Sean Esplin of Intermountain Healthcare in Utah told the AP.

The article by Hallie Golden also quoted David Turok, of the University of Utah's obstetrics and gynecology department, who said the law's language could also require general anesthesia in other scenarios, such as when labor is induced when a woman passes her due date.

"You never give those medicines if you don't have to," Turok told Golden.

But the AP report noted that the Utah Medical Association is neutral on the legislation, although its CEO, Michelle McOmber, said the association wanted language that said it is unknown whether or not the fetus feels pain. Although anesthesia is commonly used for neonatal and fetal surgery, the issue of fetal pain in abortion has been debated for years, and the medical community remains divided.

But "Laura Bunker of the conservative group United Families International said if there was any chance a fetus felt pain at 20 weeks, doctors should do everything possible to make sure it was comfortable," Golden wrote.

The Utah bill was enacted as abortion opponents in other states are ramping up efforts to ban abortion outright, arguing that the rights of the disabled are violated when fetuses are aborted because of genetic abnormalities.

Writing in STAT, David Nather and Leah Samuel said other states are eyeing Indiana's new law that bans abortions sought because of the potential for physical or mental disability, including Down syndrome. Abortion opponents are touting the law in an effort they called the "Infants' Protection Project," Nather and Samuel reported.

"The Susan B. Anthony List, a leading advocacy group opposed to abortion, said similar bills could be picked up in Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota," the STAT report said, noting that abortion supporters are watching the latest pro-life strategy with concern.

James Owens, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, told STAT that Indiana's law is “part of a concerted national plan to chip away at the constitutionally protected right to abortion." And Elizabeth Nash, a state policy expert at the Guttmacher Institute, said, “It starts us down a very dangerous path."

EMAIL: Jgraham@deseretnews.com

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