In 2016, Utah passed a law requiring fetuses beyond 20 weeks—the gestational point that Republican legislators argued that a fetus can feel pain—be given painkillers prior to “elective abortion.” Utah dubbed it “fetal anesthesia,” and though there is no medical evidence indicating that fetuses can feel pain, nor any practical research to guide abortion providers on how to anesthetize a fetus without giving a woman unnecessary painkillers, the state passed the law anyway.
Anti-abortion groups and lawmakers argued that the law was passed out of “concern for the fetus,” but women’s health providers saw a law that did little more than place patients at unnecessary risk. “You’re asking me to invent a procedure that doesn’t have any research to back it up,” Dr. Leah Torres, a physician at the state’s two abortion clinics, told the New York Times last year. “You want me to experiment on my patients.”
Now Torres, as well as the six other physicians who perform abortions at the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, say that they haven’t changed the way they perform abortions because no one knows how to comply with Utah’s “fetal anesthesia” requirements. The Associated Press reports that though doctors at the clinic are trying to comply with the law, “the measure contained no specific guidance on how to do so.”
Torres told the AP that she had requested clarity on how to enforce the law on multiple occasions. Neither the governor’s office nor the attorney general provided her with the information she requested. Instead, they recommended that she speak to a lawyer. “I guess I’m breaking the law, but I don’t know how to not break it because no one would tell me,” Torres said. The AP reached out to multiple state agencies for comment on the law:
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said physicians should try to get directions from the attorney general’s office if they don’t understand how to follow the law.
Dan Burton, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said that the office does not “specifically regulate doctors in Utah.”
He suggested asking Utah’s Department of Health, but the spokesman for that agency, Tom Hudachko, said it had no guidance for the doctors because the law “didn’t task us with doing that.”
It seems strange that no one in the state knows how to enforce a law that it passed against the recommendation of nearly every legitimate medical association and with some notable fanfare. It’s almost as if the law exists solely to make legal abortion virtually unobtainable.