Abortion anesthesia law remains unenforced; physicians say no guidance being offered

Composite image, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Last year, Utah enacted a first-in-the-nation law requiring that fetuses receive anesthesia or painkillers before elective abortions starting at 20 weeks gestation. Nine months later, the only licensed clinic providing those abortions in the state says no changes have been made in how doctors perform the procedures.

Read more: Bill requiring anesthesia for fetus during abortion advances toward governor

The handful of doctors who do the abortions at the clinic run by the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah are trying to comply with the law passed last May, but it contained no specific guidance on how to do so, said Karrie Galloway, the group’s CEO.

Dr. Leah Torres, one of five or six licensed physicians who perform these elective abortions at the clinic, said she went to legislators, the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office seeking an explanation on what treatment she’s supposed to give. She said they gave her none and recommended she speak to a lawyer.

I guess I’m breaking the law, but I don’t know how to not break it because no one would tell me,” Torres said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Dr. M. Sean Esplin, a Utah physician who performs these abortions in emergency situations, such as if the mother’s life is at risk – which is not covered by the law – said a strict interpretation could force doctors to choose between two risky procedures: administering anesthesia via a needle directly into the umbilical cord or giving women general anesthesia.

In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo, a person supporting Planned Parenthood looks on during Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s town hall meeting at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

“(The law) is, in my opinion, a waste of our money and our time by someone who is trying to make a political statement and really not worried about what’s best medically or what’s best for people’s health,” Esplin said

Gov. Gary Herbert told the AP that physicians should try to get directions from the attorney general’s office if they don’t understand how to follow the law.

Dan Burton, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said that the office does not “specifically regulate doctors in Utah.”

Burton suggested asking Utah’s Department of Health.

However, the spokesman for that agency, Tom Hudachko, said it had no guidance for the doctors because the law “didn’t task us with doing that.”

Sixteen states ban abortions starting at about 20 weeks, according to Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. Utah allows such procedures, but last year passed the first law in the nation to require anesthesia or painkillers for fetuses after 20 weeks.

Montana lawmakers passed a similar law in 2015 requiring fetal anesthesia before surgeries, including abortions, performed after 20 or more weeks of gestation, but the state’s Democratic governor vetoed the measure.

The Utah law has no definition of legal fetal anesthetics or whether doctors have complied if women receive anesthesia or painkillers during abortions with those drugs passing to the fetus.

Burton said the attorney general’s office is unaware of any investigations into doctors for alleged violations. He said any violations would probably be punishable by fines of up to $750.

In this Nov. 18, 2015, file photo, people look on during an Utah Pro-Life Coalition rally at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The Republican lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said in an interview that he did not know how the law is being implemented but expects doctors to comply.

The most recent data available from Utah’s health department show that doctors in the state performed 25 abortions at 21 weeks of gestation or later in 2015.

Dr. David Turok, another physician who provides the abortions at the Planned Parenthood clinic, said he tells his patients that research shows fetuses likely cannot feel pain prior to 24 weeks but believes he is probably following the law by giving women moderate sedation.

Mary Taylor, the president of Pro-Life Utah, said her group supported the law but that she wishes it had been enacted with tougher language and that there was more enforcement so physicians would be more likely to comply.

Eric Scheidler of the national anti-abortion group Pro-Life Action League accused the clinic’s doctors and Planned Parenthood of trying to skirt the law.

“What’s happening here is that these abortionists do not want to have to acknowledge the value of the life of the unborn child and the pain that those children experience,” he said.

Galloway said the confusion surrounding the law is proof that Utah’s state legislators did not understand the medical impact of what they were doing when they passed it.

When politicians try to practice medicine, you don’t get real medicine,” she said. “And that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Written by HALLIE GOLDEN, Associated Press. (Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.)

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • high5 February 21, 2017 at 10:22 am

    No Guidance!???? What?? How about Your Conscience? Huh?

    • comments February 21, 2017 at 12:25 pm

      If you take religion out of it the lamb chops or steak you had for dinner could also be considered murder. Anesthesia is probably a good idea.

      • ladybugavenger February 21, 2017 at 6:22 pm

        Bob, forget about religion!

        People are taking God out of everything (God is not a religion)

        taks the steroids out of steaks, chops, and bacon (I love bacon) The steroids they give animals are killing us! I’m slowly dying from eating bacon…I love bacon

    • ladybugavenger February 21, 2017 at 1:41 pm


    • Chris February 21, 2017 at 6:23 pm

      You are an idiot, and you do not understand the usage of capital letters in our language. If you bothered to actually read the article, you would understand that the legislature described no process for the required anesthesia, and since it is not medically obvious or simple, these doctors have no idea what the legislature intended. How is their conscience supposed to give them the medical procedure necessary if the law provides no information?

      • ladybugavenger February 22, 2017 at 6:57 pm

        One would have to assume that their conscience isn’t based on law.

        For instance, If I was a doctor, i couldn’t perform abortions and if someone forced me too, I would be forced to quit.

        If I married people and I was forced to marry a gay couple or be fired. I would be fired.

        You see, conscience is not based on law. My soul, is not based on law.

        • voice of reason February 23, 2017 at 6:56 am

          Why are you so hell bent on forcing your personal beliefs upon others?
          If it does not involve you, it should not concern you.
          If what other people choose to do impacts your personal salvation, you’re doing something wrong.
          If your “God” tells you otherwise, maybe you should stop listening to her.

          • comments February 23, 2017 at 11:17 am

            Policies like homosexual “marriages” actually deeply affect society and culture as a whole, and so affect all of us. You should stop being so narrow minded.

          • ladybugavenger February 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm

            You have it backwards….you see, I won’t let your beliefs affect me. But don’t expect me to perform abortions, marry gay couples, and I’ll add this…don’t make me falsify documents( you know how a lot of jobs do, I will quit before I do these things just to get paid)

            Let me know how your abortion goes and if you are psychologically damaged from it. I am curious how it affects a women emotionally, mentally, and psychologically.

  • voice of reason February 21, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Another fine example of why government should stay OUT of the doctors office. Abortion is not murder.

    • ladybugavenger February 22, 2017 at 6:59 pm

      Let me know how your abortion goes. And maybe you can answer how a person is affected by it.

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