The Governor of Utah, Gary Herbert signed a bill Monday that makes Utah the first state to mandate that doctors must give fetal anesthesia to women while undergoing abortion procedures at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Whether or not a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks has been at the heart of the controversy.
“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,” Jon Cox, Herbert’s spokesman has said.
Presumably, “erring of the side of life,” means ignoring a decade of data.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has noted that the “science” on which this controversial bill was founded is questionable, at best. Since 2005, there has not been any evidence found in the scientific community that indicates fetuses at this stage in development can feel pain.
Research over a decade ago indicated that fetal pain was a possibility because of intrauterine fetal movement; however, no study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found this to be substantiated. ACOG’s consensus is that the fetus may begin to feel pain at a later stage of development–27 weeks.
But this bill would go one step further and require the administration of anesthesia in a state-ordered medical procedure that introduces added risk for women who often already face complicated and potentially dangerous health risks. The bill exempts cases where the health of the mother is at stake or when the fetus has a fatal defect.
Unnecessary and heavy sedation, many doctors say, would put pregnant women at risk of additional complications. Anesthesia would need to go through the woman to reach the fetus, which would require a breathing tube or heavy narcotics to administer, Dr. Sean Esplin of Intermountain Healthcare in Utah has warned.
“You never give those medicines if you don’t have to,” said David Turok, from the University of Utah’s obstetrics and gynecology department.
Although anesthesia-related deaths are on the decline, there have been enough reported cases that indicate taking an unnecessary risk with anesthesia to protect a fetus –that almost no researcher could conclude has been developed to the extent that it can feel pain–can lead to the death of a pregnant woman during this procedure.
And, while deaths are rare, serious complications ranging from nerve damage to “malignant hyperthermia” can result from anesthesia. Anesthesia can also cause long-lasting mental defects. According to Scientific American, studies “suggest that a high enough dose of anesthesia can in fact raise the risk of delirium after surgery,” and that “even if the confusion dissipates, attention and memory can languish for months and, in some cases, years.” (Though it should be noted that these mental side effects are especially likely to occur in elderly patients that are past childbearing age.)
While this season the Supreme Court is contemplating whether states have the right to place high burdens on women seeking abortions and abortion providers under the pretense of protecting women’s health, this decision by the Utah government undermines these modern anti-abortion arguments. This is a case where a woman’s health would be put at unnecessary risk and a doctor denied the right to make the best decision for his or her patient in the name of unsubstantiated research on fetal pain.