As of today, doctors in Utah who provide an abortion to someone who is more than 20 weeks pregnant are required by law to provide painkillers directed specifically to the fetus. The problem is that there’s no standard medical practice for fetal analgesic or anesthetic, leaving providers wondering what exactly they’re expected to do.
“Either I will continue to provide the medical standard of care to my patients that result in breaking a law I don’t know how to follow, or I’m going to have to invent some sort of fetal analgesia and essentially experiment on my patients in order to comply with the law,” Utah OB-GYN Leah Torres told the Salt Lake Tribune.
The evidence that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks is flimsy: The most up-to-date and comprehensive research suggests that it’s unlikely a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, or about 28 weeks.
Even if you could prove fetal pain beyond a reasonable doubt, it would be completely unethical to force someone to use an anesthetic when there is no medical justification for it, Torres writes in an opinion piece for CNN.
As folks on both sides of the debate have pointed out, very few people are likely to be affected by the law. Just 17 abortions were performed in Utah after 20 weeks gestation in 2014, and almost all were wanted pregnancies terminated under awful circumstances.
Fourteen were due to fetal malformations — if those were deemed fatal, they would fall under an exception to the law, which requires written consensus of two doctors. Apparently Utah lawmakers deem fetuses with fatal anomalies less deserving of painkillers than others. In most cases, the patient opted for surgical abortions under general anesthesia, which would naturally anesthetize the fetus as well.
But what to do about those few not covered by the exemptions where the patient would also opt against anesthesia?
Bill sponsor Keven Stratton has said that lawmakers will leave it up to doctors and patients to decide how to best ease the supposed fetal pain.
Here are some suggestions that are based in exactly as much sound medical science as the Utah law:
Any pain medication that the pregnant person takes will automatically transfer through the placenta to the fetus. Over-the-counter painkillers cost a lot less than other interventions, and there’s as much evidence to suggest that these will dull fetal pain as a general anesthetic, or a trans-abdominal injection of analgesics directly into the fetal tissue.
The pregnant person probably hasn’t had a drop to drink in months, and might be keen on the suggestion of a big glass of red wine before the abortion. Alcohol for pain relief is an age-old therapy that’s making a comeback — who’s to say it won’t work for fetuses, too? Certainly not any peer-reviewed medical studies published to date.
OK, cocaine use is illegal, but so is performing an abortion in Utah after 20 weeks gestation without a fetal painkiller. Since it’s fetal pain that Utah lawmakers are so concerned about, and cocaine has proven analgesic properties, surely it would be alright if a pregnant person about to have an abortion elected to snort a small bump?
Surely many Utah lawmakers would agree that prayer has the power to do many amazing things, including ease the pain of a fetus in the midst of an abortion. In fact, prayer has shown to be exactly as effective as every other known method of fetal pain control, according to the accumulated evidence to date.