SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers passed a bill Thursday that would require women to receive anesthesia for any abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, ostensibly to prevent the fetus from feeling pain.
The news was met with dismay by doctors who warned legislators that the measure was based on unsound science and would force them to lie to patients.
Supporters of the bill — many part of a coalition of organizations that oppose abortion and so-called "right to die" legislation — celebrated the bill for what they said was its humanity.
SB234, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, now heads to Gov. Gary Herbert for his expected signature.
Herbert said Thursday he sees no reason to not sign the bill.
"I'm a little puzzled by some of the opposition to this," he said. "Everybody seems to agree that it's uncertain whether the unborn child or fetus can feel pain at that 20 weeks. If it's uncertain, why would we not err on the side of painless?"
If the bill is signed into law, doctors would be required to tell patients that "substantial medical evidence from studies concludes that an unborn child who is at least 20 weeks gestational age may be capable of experiencing pain during an abortion procedure."
Alexandra Eller, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the University of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare, said that's simply not true.
She's part of a group of 23 doctors who sent letters to legislators opposing the bill.
Eller said she feels "disheartened and, frankly, fearful" that legislators are mandating that she give biased counseling.
"We are never going to all agree about a woman's right to choose an abortion, electively or otherwise," she said. "But I find it sad and tragic that we can't agree that we should be honest with patients."
Eller said the bill would also force women to undergo a medical procedure that they may not consent to based on science that is still unsettled.
Doctors would have to give anesthesia or an analgesic to the fetus through the woman, which puts her at higher risk of complications, according to Eller.
Supporters of the bill such as Bruce Rigby, a founder of Pro-Life Utah, called the decision "exciting."
Rigby said that if the bill becomes law and makes some women rethink their abortions, "we've done some good today."
"This has been a big learning opportunity for the pro-life movement in Utah," he added.
Many in the group were outraged by a series of secretly recorded videos — released last year — purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials bargaining over the price of fetal tissue.
Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah, said the group plans to run more legislation next year. The group is considering legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks and would require abortion procedures to be carried out in ambulatory surgical centers.
Similar legislation that passed in Texas is currently before the Supreme Court.
Asked whether the measures were meant to chip away at a woman's ability to get an abortion, Taylor said, "Would I protect every single baby if I could? I would. But we'll take what we can get."
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the only doctors who have contacted him have been opposed to the bill.
"I'm troubled by the degree to which the bill inserts the Legislature in between a woman and her doctor," King said. "We talk all the time about getting government off the backs of people. This is a pretty personal situation and decision that we're debating here."
Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said "there's another way we make decisions" besides basing them on "science and medicine."
"It's a power that we all have, and it's called the power of discernment," he said. " I listen to science, I listen to medicine, but on some of these issues you just have to go to those core values and hope for that power of discernment that you make the right decision."
If the governor adds his signature to the bill, physicians will be required to administer anesthesia or analgesia to the fetus, through the woman, if the fetus is greater than 20 weeks gestational age.
Only women who need the abortion to avoid death, serious impairment of a "major bodily function," or a lethal fetal defect can be exempt — and only then after getting two physicians to agree.
It is unclear what quantifiable impact the bill will have because it only applies to women receiving abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.
According to the Associated Press, health department statistics show 1 percent of the more than 2,700 abortions performed in Utah in 2014 took place after 20 weeks of gestation.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes so-called fetal pain legislation.
The organization has cited two rigorous reports — one published in the New England Journal of Medicine and another published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the U.K. — which concluded that fetuses do not have the neural wiring necessary to consciously feel pain until 24 to 28 weeks.
Fetuses may react to painful stimuli by moving away or showing signs of stress, but those are involuntary reflexes — not signs that the fetus is consciously feeling pain, according to researchers.