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Fetal anesthesia bill advances in House committee

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, speaks at the GOP Central Committee meeting at Salt Lake Community College Sandy Campus in Sandy on Saturday, June 22, 2013.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, speaks at the GOP Central Committee meeting at Salt Lake Community College Sandy Campus in Sandy on Saturday, June 22, 2013.
Deseret News,

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would require physicians to administer anesthesia to women for abortions after 20 weeks of gestation is on its way to the House floor after clearing a committee hearing Tuesday.

The bill revolves around the understanding of when a fetus can feel pain — a question that is still disputed by researchers.

The sponsor of SB234, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said "human decency" requires people to "at least alleviate the potential for that child to feel pain."

“I agree a woman has a right to choose what she does with her body," Bramble said. "We're not referring to her body; we're referring to the body of an unborn child. Who is the doctor for the unborn child?"

Maternal-fetal specialists who testified at the hearing disputed Bramble's claims, written in the bill, that "substantial medical evidence" concludes a fetus can feel pain at a gestational age of 20 weeks.

They said the measure would potentially force women into treatment they didn’t consent to and is medically unnecessary — even risky.

Alexandra Eller, a maternal-fetal specialist at Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah, said the bill mandates doctors to “counsel patients in an unethical and biased way.”

Eller said the most rigorous research shows a fetus likely doesn't feel pain until closer to 28 weeks of gestation.

Sean Esplin, also a maternal-fetal doctor at Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah, criticized lawmakers for mandating that physicians administer anesthesia or analgesics to the fetus without outlining how they expect doctors to do it.

Esplin said sedating patients — pregnant women in particular — increases their risk of having complications.

"What you're going to do is going to increase the risk to the mother, and it's going to result in injury and death," Esplin said. "You shouldn't be here telling me what I have to say when I know that it's not true."

Supporters of the bill argued that animals being killed for food and prisoners on death row get better treatment than fetuses.

Deanna Holland, a mother of five who supports the bill, said medical science has been playing "a catch-up game" with its understanding of fetal pain.

She questioned whether doctors were being open about all the options available for giving a fetus anesthesia.

"I'm not a doctor, but I feel like we're being misled," Holland said. "A doctor I talked to said, 'I had no problem delivering anesthesia to the baby without risk to the mother.' I don't know why we're not hearing these options."

Bruce Rigby, founder of the group Pro-Life Utah, said the bill is meant to give unborn children "dignity."

Responding to concerns that legislators were playing doctor, Rigby said, “Our legislators make the rules, period. And it’s up to us as the public to be involved in it as much as we can.”

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, asked whether it was "a little ironic" that it is "a federal offense to destroy a bald eagle egg … yet no such laws exist for unborn children."

The language of the bill was softened with an amendment proposed by Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan.

The committee amended wording in the bill that said “substantial medical evidence from studies conclude that an unborn child who is at least 20 weeks gestational is capable of experiencing pain during an abortion procedure."

The bill passed by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee now says that a fetus “may” feel pain.

Bramble said the change was made at the request of the Utah Medical Association.

“With this amendment, the Utah Medical Association was not opposed to the bill, and I agreed to accept that amendment on that basis,” Bramble said. “I believe this is as close as we can get at this particular point in time.”

It’s unclear how much of a quantifiable impact the bill will have.

Health department statistics show only 1 percent of the more than 2,700 abortions performed in Utah in 2014 took place after 20 weeks of gestation, according to an Associated Press report.

Esplin said the majority of women choose to undergo anesthesia, but they are "given the option to do that. They get to choose whether they take the risk or not.”

Physicians are already required by Utah law to offer women anesthesia or an analgesic for abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.

The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration.

Another bill related to abortion, HB442, was scheduled for a hearing Tuesday but likely won't be heard because the House is only hearing select bills due to time constraints.

The bill would ban what opponents say are some of the most common forms of abortion.

Legislative legal analysts warned in a note attached to the bill that the measure "has a high probability of being declared unconstitutional."

Its sponsor, Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, said he "got too late of a start" on the bill this year but that he would run it again.

"It will be back," Oda said. "It is ready to go in the future."

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_