Why Utah's Nonsensical New Abortion Bill Is So Bad For Women

Mandating anesthesia isn't about protecting women -- or their fetuses.
Utah's new abortion bill is not grounded in science.
Utah's new abortion bill is not grounded in science.

This week Utah's "adamantly pro-life" governor signed a bill that makes the state the first in the country to require that every single woman who gets an abortion at or beyond 20 weeks receives anesthesia.

At first glance, this may not sound particularly alarming, but it's a bill that has reproductive health experts around the country shaking their heads in  disbelief, and it's very bad news for women. Here's why:

#1. It isn't based in science. 

Utah's so-called "protecting unborn children amendments" now include the bold (and incorrect) assertion that "substantial medical evidence from studies concludes that an unborn child who is at least 20 weeks gestational age may be capable of experiencing pain during an abortion procedure." (This language might as well have been lifted straight from The National Right to Life Committee, the self-proclaimed oldest and largest pro-life organization in the United States.)

The Utah bill further asserts that requiring women to have an anesthetic or an analgesic will help prevent fetuses from feeling pain. But in fact, medical evidence clearly refutes the idea that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. A sweeping 2005 review on the topic -- in one of the nation's premiere medical journals, written by actual doctors and researchers -- explicitly spelled out that "fetal anesthesia or analgesia should not be recommended or routinely offered for abortion." To say nothing of requiring it.

"The notion that a fetus can feel pain is not supported by the medical community," said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate with the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, D.C. "There is no medical basis for this law."

#2. It's completely nonsensical. And potentially dangerous for women.

Trying to make sense of how, exactly, this will all play out for women and abortion care providers is pretty much impossible at this point, precisely because the requirement has no roots in credible science. What does it mean that a woman must receive anesthesia or analgesia? How much? What kind? Who the hell knows.

"I don't know exactly what it is asking, and since legislators are legislators and not anesthesiologists, they can't tell us what they are thinking -- nor are they qualified to in that regard," said Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director of Physicians for Reproductive Health, and assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.

The bill seems to assume there is some kind of fetal anesthesia, and that care providers know how to give it, Davis said, but no such pain medication exists. Women are sometimes given anesthesia during an abortion, but it's on a case-by-case basis, and can range from localized topical applications, to sedation, to general anesthesia in rare cases. And it's to treat her.

"Because it's not necessary, it's going to be very difficult for a doctor to try and come up with anything that makes sense," Davis argued. Though anesthesia is generally quite safe, it does have risks. 

"This is different than telling someone something that's not true; it's giving someone medicine that they don't need...and that has risks," Davis continued, referring to laws in certain states that require doctors to read scripts with inflated claims about the risks of abortion care. "It's highly unethical."

#3. It's a sneaky, back-door way to ban abortion care.

Because the new Utah bill puts doctors in the unfair position of having to make sense of a requirement not backed by scientific evidence, not to mention one that carries potentially heavy added costs, experts believe it's effectively a new way to try and ban 20-week abortions -- one other states might try and copy.

It's important to note that while most abortions in the U.S. occur before 21 weeks, women who seek them later often do so because of severe fetal abnormalities, or because they've faced major hurdles accessing the abortion care legally afforded them by the Supreme Court.

"This law is similar to laws that exist in 12 other states that ban abortion at about 20 weeks fertilization," Nash said. "It's just a different way of banning abortions at 20 weeks."

"Everything about [it]," she said, "is misguided."



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