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After listening to Utah doctors' anxieties over a fetal-pain bill, state senators in the staunchly anti-abortion Legislature took the rare step of telling the sponsor to revise his legislation and come back.
Clearfield Rep. Paul Ray's HB222 would require doctors to inform women having abortions after 20 weeks' gestation that their fetuses can feel pain.
But it was the rest of his bill - the part requiring doctors to offer anesthetics or analgesics to fetuses - that gave even conservative members of the all-male Senate Health and Human Services Committee pause.
It didn't help that virtually every doctor in the legislative committee room Friday said no physician in Utah administers in-utero pain medication.
"No one in Utah knows how this would be done," said Dave Turok, a Salt Lake City obstetrician/gynecologist. "No one does it here."
Ray insists his legislation is about disclosure - so-called "informed consent" before a woman has an abortion. The draft law allows doctors to remain silent in emergencies, cases of rape or incest or if the abortion is meant to prevent the birth of a child with "grave defects." The Utah Department of Health would prepare a brochure that doctors would be required to hand out summarizing scientific debate about whether fetuses feel pain.
Besides questioning the science behind Ray's bill, one Utah doctor after another testified that the legislation would send traumatized women down a dead-end path because in-utero surgery and the related technology for administering fetal pain medication through the umbilical cord or the abdomen either isn't done in the state or endangers the mother's health.
"We don't know how to give the mother that kind of anesthesia in a safe way," said Catherine Wheeler, president of the Utah Medical Association. "We're really not sure how to go forward with these recommendations."
In 2003, the last year with available statistics, 18 Utah women had late-term abortions. Doctors say most of those pregnancies were ended because the fetus had fatal fetal defects or the mother's life or health was at risk - and most were delivered vaginally.
Turok said telling those women their fetuses feel pain is heaping torment upon torment. "These women have real pain," he said. "They did not come to this decision easily. Creating another barrier for them to get the medical care they need is really unfair."
Ray said doctors will have a lot of leeway under his legislation to say what they want to say - even countering the idea that fetuses feel pain. "We haven't taken away the doctor's ability to give his opinion. The physician gets to say what he feels about it," he said. "I've tried to make this as friendly as possible to the doctors."
Democratic senators on the committee worried about lawmakers trying to "practice medicine" through legislation.
And Sen. Scott McCoy asked Ray why he is even bothering with such legislation. If doctors can dispute the legislation's timetable for fetal pain and tell a women she would have to go out of state to get pain medication, what's the point?
"We don't need to weigh in and insert ourselves into a doctor-patient relationship," the Salt Lake City Democrat said.
Republican senators, on the other hand, said lawmakers are within their authority to require doctors to tell their patients certain things.
"Irrespective of the fact that we do not have the technology or the skill to administer anesthesia, I believe [telling a mother about fetal pain] is part of informed consent," Fruit Heights Republican Sen. Greg Bell said.
But enough doubts lingered for Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, to stall the bill. Knudson sided with McCoy and West Valley City Democratic Sen. Brent Goodfellow in two tie votes - one to send the bill to the Senate, the other to move on to another agenda item.
At stalemate, Senate President John Valentine, in a rare committee appearance, suggested Ray polish his legislation, taking out references to administering medication to the fetus.
After the hearing, Ray said he would make "minor changes" and bring his bill back next week. "We'll come back with an even better, even stronger bill," he said.