In late March 2016, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R-UT) signed a bill making Utah “the first state to require doctors to give anesthesia to women having an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later.” Despite criticism that this requirement would pose an increased risk to women, a spokesperson for the governor argued that the bill was essential for “minimizing any pain that may be caused to an unborn child” during the course of an abortion procedure -- even though scientific research suggests that a fetus cannot experience pain until possibly 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The Utah bill and others like it are based on the flawed premise that a fetus is able to feel pain starting around 20 weeks post-fertilization. Assertions about fetal pain have animated right-wing media discussions of abortion and supplied talking points for anti-choice politicians to push for increasingly restrictive and medically unnecessary laws targeting abortion access.
On April 12, the Los Angeles Times editorial board published an editorial lambasting Gov. Herbert’s decision, explaining that the bill was unprecedented in its mandate that abortion providers “use anesthesia in order to solve a non-existent problem.” The Times wrote that the bill was not only “a reckless intrusion of a state legislature into the practice of medicine,” but that this intrusion is medically unnecessary, is potentially dangerous, and ultimately will make abortion more costly.
According to the Times, “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.” This medical opinion is not anomalous. A March 2010 report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists affirmed that “research shows that the sensory structures are not developed or specialised enough to experience pain in a fetus less than 24 weeks.”
Despite this evidence, anti-choice politicians have invoked the possibility of fetal pain before 24 weeks of pregnancy to pass legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks. In an interview with Salon, Columbia University Medical Center’s Dr. Anne Davis said these warnings about fetal pain prior to 24 weeks are “created concerns” that are “based in politics,” not science. According to Davis, a fetus’s brain is not sufficiently developed to perceive pain until 24 weeks gestation and politicians “can have an opinion about that, but it doesn’t change the information.”
Furthermore, there is little evidence to support the idea that forced anesthesia is medically necessary or safe. An article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that “little or no evidence addresses the effectiveness of direct fetal anesthetic or analgesic techniques” and that there is even less data to support “the safety of such techniques for pregnant women in the context of abortion.” The Times noted that the vagueness of the Utah bill’s language contributes to the problem. Because the bill does not provide guidance for what constitutes sufficient anesthesia, it is likely to “leave [providers] stymied” because there is no way to determine “how much anesthesia they ought to give a woman in order to alleviate or eliminate pain they don’t even believe the fetus feels,” the Times wrote. And if they thus opt for general anesthesia, that “poses more risks to the woman than the actual abortion procedure.”
The Times also stated that the bill “would raise the cost of the procedure.” Although the bill did not include any language about where those costs would be incurred, there is little reason to believe it would not come out of a patient’s pocket. According to CNN’s Ashley Fantz, “when asked if there is a cost estimate for the new anesthesia requirement,” the spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health told CNN that the department “does not have funding to pay for anesthesia.” Given the already disproportionate impact of abortion restrictions on low-income populations, increasing the costs of procedures is a dangerous precedent that could place abortion care out of reach for many.
Questions of access haven’t deterred the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, however. When asked about the possibility that people may object to receiving anesthesia before an abortion, he replied: “then that individual patient might not want to decide to have that abortion in Utah.”
*Photo courtsey of: CNN