At the end of May, a Utah law will go into effect mandating that women seeking abortions at 20 weeks or more into their pregnancy take painkillers — not for themselves, but for their unborn fetuses.
The bill, signed into law in March by Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert, has made Utah the first state to require "fetal anesthesia" for late-term abortions. But according to the doctors and pro-abortion activists pushing back on it, the science the law is based on is thorny and contentious.
According to a New York Times story published Thursday, opponents of the law have called it "bafflingly vague and scientifically unsound," and argue that the administration of unspecific painkillers could create health risks for women.
In 2013, the Times reported that some in the scientific community were split over the stage at which a gestating fetus is capable of feeling pain, citing the release of stress hormones, formation of the cortex and other neural research to fuel their arguments.
Anti-abortion groups used prior research to campaign for the Utah law's passage, but the consensus among many doctors is that fetuses are not capable of feeling pain until past the 20-week mark, the Times reports.
The main research to bolster the arguments of the law's opponents comes from a 2005 Journal of the American Medical Association study, whose findings suggested it is not until the 27th week that a fetus first feels pain.
Abortions past the 20-week mark are already an extremely rare occurrence in Utah. The Times cites Karrie Galloway, the chief executive of the state's Planned Parenthood chapter, who said that in 2014, only 17 abortions performed in Utah were at or beyond 20 weeks into pregnancy.
Proponents of the law, like Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, say that in lieu of pushing to ban late-term abortions altogether, legislators had settled for championing measures that advocated for the best interests of the fetus.
"Who's making the decisions for the child?" he told the Times. "Who's the doctor for the baby? It's not the woman's body we're talking about. It's a separate person."
Salt Lake City physician, Dr. Alexandra Grosvenor Eller, told the Times that abortions beyond the 20-week mark occur almost exclusively when the fetus has developed fatal health complications, such as a malformed heart or brain.
The decision for a woman to terminate a pregnancy can already be devastating, Eller argued, even without the states stepping in to determine the type of care the woman will receive.
"You walk into that room and you're going to change someone's life forever. For the Legislature to tell me how to counsel that woman — these conversations are hard enough," said Eller.