SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would require women to receive anesthesia for abortions after 20 weeks of gestation cleared a Senate committee Monday and is on its way to the Senate floor.
Under current law, women can choose to have anesthesia administered to the fetus to reduce potential pain during the abortion.
SB234, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would require doctors to administer it.
At the bill’s first public hearing Monday, debate centered around whether the science behind the bill was sound and whether the measure would create an undue burden on women seeking abortions.
But he abandoned his efforts after legal analysts advised him there would be “serious legal challenges” with that measure, he said.
SB234 doesn’t infringe on a woman’s right to abortion, but “if a woman is going to exercise that right, let’s at least have the dignity to protect that child from the imposition of pain,” Bramble said.
Opponents of the bill say the measure is based in unsound science.
Dr. Leah Torres, an OB-GYN and reproductive rights advocate, said fetal pain research is still inconclusive.
Pain is a complex process that involves feedback between several different structures. So although fetuses may react to painful stimuli by pulling away or showing increased stress hormones, those are involuntary reflexes — not signs that the fetus is consciously feeling pain, Torres said.
The hotly contested nature of fetal pain research has been brought to light in recent years as a number of states have passed legislation banning abortions at 20 weeks on the assumption that fetuses can perceive pain at that point.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes such legislation.
It cites two reports as its reasoning. The first, published by the influential New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, concluded that fetuses do not have the neural wiring necessary to consciously perceive pain before the third trimester.
The second, published in 2010 by the U.K.’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, concluded that the neural pathways necessary for a fetus to perceive pain are not in place before 24 weeks.
Torres called the anesthesia requirement an "uninformed medical procedure based on nothing more than political rhetoric that is not supported by any medical organization."
"Can you imagine what it would be like to have a law force you into medical care that you did not want?” she asked.
Bramble's bill is backed by a number of people who are part of a coalition of organizations that oppose abortion and so-called "death with dignity" legislation.
Callie Oppedisano, the pro-life ministry coordinator with Saint John the Baptist Parish Knights of Columbus, called it "utterly disturbing" that women would "call killing an innocent person the most important thing they could do."
Kimberly Ells, president of the Utah chapter of Family Watch International, said she believes fetuses can feel pain far earlier than the third trimester.
Ells said she could tell during her ultrasound at 16 weeks pregnant that “the baby kept squirming away, kicking away and rolling its arms.”
“It became clear that the baby was responding to the pressure of the ultrasound probe,” Ells said.
But Chelsea Hicken, who said she had an abortion at 20 weeks, said lawmakers are inserting themselves into private medical decisions.
If enacted, the measure would make an already-difficult decision far more traumatic, Hicken said.
“You have to understand, in this instance, the women in these positions are usually not being very supported by people in their community,” she said. “They’re having to make these decisions on their very own and it hurts enough already.”
Had she been told she'd be required to undergo anesthesia because she was causing her unborn child pain, Hicken said she probably would have changed her mind.
Some opponents also questioned why the bill was assigned to be heard by the Senate Business and Labor Committee — of which Bramble serves as chairman — instead of the Health and Human Services Committee, where many of the lawmakers have medical backgrounds.
Bramble said bill assignments are left up to the Rules Committee. He said the bill is relevant to the Business and Labor Committee because the committee handles issues of licensing and standards for medical professionals.
Opponents, he said, were grasping at “tangential arguments.”
“The reality is that the bill is going to be seen very favorably by this Legislature,” Bramble said.
SB234 is not the only abortion-related bill in the Legislature this session. Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit physicians from performing common abortion procedures.
The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel said the measure has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional by a court."
Bramble said SB234 would not prevent or delay a woman from getting an abortion and should not face the same legal challenges.
The committee passed the bill with a favorable recommendation, 4-1.