Utah Orders Abortion Doctors To Put Their Patients In Danger


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A new Utah law that went into effect on Tuesday will force doctors to shirk their promise to “do no harm” by dangerously over-anesthetizing women who seek a later abortion.

Informed by anti-abortion state lawmakers rather than by medical experts, the “Protecting Unborn Children Amendment” requires physicians to administer an anesthetic to any women seeking an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later, to “eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child.” Like many anti-abortion laws on the state level, Utah’s law rests on the unscientific belief that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks of gestation.

“You’re asking me to invent a procedure that doesn’t have any research to back it up,” said Dr. Leah Torres, an OB-GYN who works at one of Utah’s two licensed abortion clinics, in an interview with the New York Times. “You want me to experiment on my patients.”

Utah physicians have strongly opposed the bill since its inception, arguing that unscientific opinions from state lawmakers have no place in a safe doctor-patient relationship — especially if they put a woman’s life at risk.

Abortion providers already offer general anesthesia to women receiving a second-trimester abortion, and the drugs naturally enter the fetus’ bloodstream. Currently, these providers are mandated to inform women of anesthesia-related side effects and health risks. This new law does not include this precaution, and instead asks doctors to inform their patient 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.”

Few doctors actually believe this to be true — according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, fetus don’t develop the ability to feel pain “before 29 or 30 weeks.”And doctors are wary to give anyone more anesthesia than what is called for. But under this new law, abortion providers could face a third-degree felony if they refuse to follow suit.

“Imagine that I sit down with a patient and tell her what she can expect and how I’m going to take care of her,” Dr. Anne Davis, consulting medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Health,told CNN. “And somehow I work in, ‘Oh, by the way, the state has told me that I have to give this to you?’ She asks, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘There’s no benefit to you, but there will be additional risk.'”

If anything, Utah’s new law illustrates the gulf between medical practice and legislation written by politicians. Without any information on what kind of anesthesia — or how much — is required to legally meet this law, physicians are left asking questions they know the statehouse can’t answer.

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

This fear could keep many doctors from performing abortions in the state altogether. Others may stop offering abortions at 20 weeks or later because they don’t want to give a patient anesthesia if they don’t need it. In that sense, this law could function as an indirect ban.

In the words of Cynthia Daniels, the Rutgers study’s lead author: “Misinformation is a threat to the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship and to the medical system as a whole.”


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress