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After an emotional hearing, a Senate committee advanced a bill Monday to require anesthesia for a fetus before an abortion any time after 20 weeks of gestation.

The Senate Business and Labor Committee voted 4-1 to endorse SB234 and sent it to the full Senate. The committee, which typically does not deal with health issues, has the bill's sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, as its chairman.

Under current Utah law, abortion providers must provide a patient information about whether a fetus may feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation, communicate the medical risks associated with the administration of anesthesia and offer anesthesia before the procedure. SB234 would make anesthesia mandatory.

Bramble said he would like to ban abortions, especially for fetuses of 20 weeks gestation or older, but legislative lawyers told him any such measure is likely unconstitutional. So he said he is targeting reducing pain for the fetus.

"Even the most heinous criminals where capital punishment is ready to be carried out … we take great effort to protect them from experiencing pain," he said. "Yet, in an unborn child, we cavalierly say, well, 'Science may not prove definitively whether they feel pain or not, therefore there's not a requirement' " for anesthesia.

The bill includes a statement that "substantial medical evidence" concludes a fetus of 20 weeks is capable of experiencing pain. Medical experts and physicians protested that this was a political statement not supported by the evidence.

"The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has publicly stated that this kind of legislation is not based on science, nor is it in line with standard medical ethics," said Leah Torres, an OB-GYN.

"It deeply concerns me that a legislature would have the audacity to tell me what medicines I must or must not give my patients," Torres said. "This legislation pretends to know what is best for an individual and their family, as if they are not already going through enough deciding how to proceed."

Kimberly Ells, president of Family Watch International Utah, who is 18 weeks pregnant, testified that her baby reacts to pressure and probably feels pain.

Two weeks ago, Ells had an ultrasound and saw "a fully formed baby moving inside me." As the technician tried to determine the sex of the baby, "it squirmed away, kicking and waving its arms. ... It became clear the baby was responding to the pressure of the ultrasound probe. The baby clearly could feel pressure."

She added, "Regardless how you feel about the moral or legal status of abortion, perhaps the question should be how and what the unborn child feels."

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said, "If there's any chance that a fetus is feeling pain, I think we should err on the side of alleviating that pain."

But Alexandra Eller, maternal and fetal-medicine specialist at Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah, said, "To legislate the terms of our counseling and to mandate that medical professionals give what can only be interpreted as politically driven and biased representation as scientific evidence is dishonest and, in my opinion, highly unethical."

Marina Lowe, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, opposed the measure.

"A woman's health, and not politics," she said, "should drive important medical decisions."

Maryann Christensen, executive director of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said that amid "the murder of our offspring and the despicable practice" of abortion, "the very least we can do is mitigate the baby's pain."

Gina Jones, with the Knights of Columbus, said Utah law requires rendering animals killed for food insensible to pain "by a means that is instantaneous and effective." She said, "Yet we can take several minutes to tear limbs and other body parts off an unborn child before the child finally succumbs to his or her injuries."

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, has proposed separate legislation that would ban what his HB442 calls "dismemberment abortion," including the most common forms of abortion. The measure would attempt to outlaw most abortions, and legislative lawyers warn it is likely unconstitutional. No hearing for it has been scheduled.