At the end of this month, a law passed by Utah State Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert, will require that women terminating a pregnancy at 20 weeks or more be given anesthesia or painkillers. Not for them—it’s called “fetal anesthesia.”

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Researchers disagree about when exactly a fetus is capable of feeling physical pain, but most agree that they probably don’t have the neurological connections necessary until further along in the pregnancy. The New York Times reports that doctors are angered by vague restrictions on their practice that complicate already difficult decisions:

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.”

Abortions at or past 20 weeks make up a very small percentage of administered procedures. Frequently, when it does happen at that stage it’s due to an untreatable problem in the fetus’ development, or lethal complications for the mother. In other words, it’s already a stressful time. As part of the law, doctors would be required to tell women that “substantial medical evidence” shows the fetus may feel pain during the abortion, even though there isn’t anything of the kind.

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Dr. Torres and other critics argued that the law was unworkable and made no medical sense. They said it offered no definition of what, in Utah’s view, legally constitutes a fetal anesthetic. Many women already receive anesthesia or painkillers if they have surgical abortions, and those drugs naturally pass to the fetus. Dr. Torres asked if that would be enough — if Motrin would suffice. And other doctors asked if they would have to specifically inject a fetus with an anesthetic through a woman’s abdominal wall.

“We don’t know what to do,” Dr. Torres said. “What does it mean? How do we not break this law?”

Indeed. Almost like it’s intended to be an insurmountable barrier to a necessary and legal medical procedure.

Image via AP.


Contact the author at aimee.lutkin@jezebel.com.