By Jack Healy
Starting later this month, women in Utah seeking an abortion 20 weeks or more into a pregnancy will first have to be given anesthesia or painkillers — drugs that are intended not for them, but for the fetus.
Those are the terms of a new law that has made Utah the first state in the country to require what doctors here are calling “fetal anesthesia” for the small percentage of abortions that occur at this point in a pregnancy. The law, passed by the Republican-controlled State Legislature and signed in late March by Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, has opened a new front in the heated debate over fetal pain.
The science examining when a fetus begins to feel pain is complex. Most scientists who have expressed views on the issue have said they do not think the neurological wiring to feel pain is in place until a fetus is further along in a pregnancy, past the point when nearly all abortions occur.
But in recent years the issue has become political fodder in legislative battles over restricting abortions later in a pregnancy.
Anti-abortion groups and lawmakers in Utah said they were acting out of concern for the fetus. But abortion rights activists and some obstetricians and maternal care doctors in Utah said the law was bafflingly vague and scientifically unsound. They said that it intruded into confidential decisions between doctors and patients, and that it could put women’s health at risk by creating a broad requirement for them to take unspecified painkillers.
“You’re asking me to invent a procedure that doesn’t have any research to back it up,” said Dr. Leah Torres, an obstetrician-gynecologist who spends half of a Saturday each month working in Salt Lake City at one of Utah’s two licensed abortion clinics. “You want me to experiment on my patients.”
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