Editorial: Utah abortion bill is reckless meddling into women’s health


A new Utah law requiring abortion providers to administer anesthesia to a woman if she is having an abortion at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy is the first of its kind in the nation and it is a reckless intrusion of a state legislature into the practice of medicine. In order to assure the best possible care for patients, decisions about what type of pain medication or anesthesia to administer should be made by medical professionals, not by state legislators.

The bill, signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert last month, requires an anesthetic or analgesic be administered “to eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child” — even though reputable scientific research, backed by mainstream groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, indicates that a fetus doesn’t have the capability to feel pain until sometime in the third trimester, which starts at 24 weeks. But at that point, most abortions are banned in Utah. In other words, the law calls on doctors to use anesthesia in order to solve a non-existent problem.

Also troubling is that the law mandates that doctors follow a vague course of action that is likely to leave them stymied over how to reconcile the demands of the statute with their best medical judgment. For one thing, abortion providers don’t know how much anesthesia they ought to give to a woman in order to alleviate or eliminate pain they don’t even believe the fetus feels. Although first trimester abortions are usually done with oral pain medications or a local anesthetic injected into the cervix, abortions at 20 weeks are often done with moderate sedation, administered intravenously. Would that be enough to satisfy the law? Would general anesthesia be required? Even at 20 weeks, general anesthesia poses more risks to the woman than the actual abortion procedure. And it would raise the cost of the procedure.


The law has some exceptions. Anesthesia is unnecessary if it will kill or irreversibly harm the woman or if the fetus being aborted has a diagnosable “defect” and is likely to die. (Apparently, the legislators believe those fetuses are not capable of feeling pain.)

Doctors are expected to put their patients’ health first, but it’s hard to see how they can do so if anti-abortion legislators insist on meddling in a medical process they clearly do not understand very well. Utah’s bill is related, of course, to efforts by anti-abortion lawmakers in other states to legislate constitutional rights for “unborn children” through personhood amendments, and to laws, like the one recently passed in Indiana, requiring all fetal tissue to be cremated or buried.

It’s bad enough that states pass laws that restrict access to abortion, often unconstitutionally. To dictate how doctors practice medicine is unconscionable.

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