Today in appalling innovations in abortion law:
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert just signed a law that will require doctors to ignore best medical practice and give some women unnecessary anesthesia for abortions. This is the first time any state has tried this, even during a veritable boom of creative anti-abortion lawmaking at the state level.
The idea behind SB 234, or the Protecting Unborn Children Amendments, is to prevent a fetus from feeling pain during an abortion at 20 weeks or more. It requires a doctor performing an abortion at this stage to “administer an anesthetic or analgesic to eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child.”
The problem? Thorough reviews of medical evidence reject the idea that fetuses can actually feel pain at 20 weeks. They don’t fully develop the proper neurological structures to feel pain until later, around 29 to 30 weeks in the third trimester.
The bigger problem? There’s really no such thing as “fetal anesthesia” in standard medical practice. And the law doesn’t specify how doctors are supposed to make it happen.
“I’ve emailed the governor and asked him to tell me what to do, because I don’t know what to do,” Dr. Leah Torres, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Utah, told Vox. “It’s like saying, ‘Take someone’s widget out using standard medical practice.’ I don’t know what that means.”
Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, told CNN that the law could amount to a “de facto” ban on abortions at 20 weeks or later, because no doctor would give a patient anesthesia who doesn’t need it.
And banning abortion after 20 weeks is exactly what Utah lawmakers were trying to do in the first place, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, initially proposed a total ban on abortion after 20 weeks but changed it after he was told the ban would be unconstitutional.
The headline for the story suggests Utah doctors are “dumbfounded” by the new law. Perhaps they are, but if they’ve been paying attention they shouldn’t be. What’s going on here should be fairly obvious, especially in light of Donald Trump’s gaffe (and uncharacteristically speedy and thorough walkback). They understand it’d be a political disaster for them if they tried to use the criminal justice system to punish women who seek abortions, but that doesn’t mean they have to give up on punishment altogether. Punishment comes in many forms. The story here isn’t “Utah Republicans have false beliefs which lead to bad, unnecessary law,” it’s one, or both, of the following: “Utah Republicans looking for backdoor ways to enact unconstitutional abortion bans”/”Utah Republicans use doctors as a tool to administer an extra-judicial punishment.”