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Different Interpretations of Same Abortion Research Leads to Political Polarization
Cernegie Stages


A new Utah law requiring doctors who terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks gestation to provide the fetus with pain-reducing anesthesia, has left those looking into the law asking more question than finding answers.

There are two numbers used when lawmakers debated the passage of the Protecting Unborn Childrens Amendments. They heard testimony from pro-life supporters who say a fetus responds to pain at eight weeks gestation, while pro-choice advocates testified a fetus doesn't feel pain until after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Credit / University of Utah
University of Utah
Maureen Condic


The two opposing sides are citing the same studies, but they are using the research differently to back their claims, said Maureen Condic, an associate researcher of neurobiology and anatomy who studies fetal development at the University of Utah.


“You’ll often hear people accuse one side or the other by saying it is bad science," she said. "But I think everyone is in 100 percent agreement about what the science said and what it means."


On both sides of the debate, everyone sites the same literature and interpret that literature in the same way, she said. There’s no controversy as far as the science is concerned.

Click to hear the full interview with Maureen Condic.


Credit / Curt Bramble
Curt Bramble
State Senator Curt Bramble

During the legislative session, Republican Senator Curt Bramble of Provo based his argument for sponsoring the law on the premise that a fetus responds to pain as early as eight weeks.


“If you prod a child in the womb, or poke them with a needle, it reacts violently to that,” he said.

Click to hear the full interview with Senator Curt Bramble.

That fact is true, but it’s misleading, said Condic. That response is a reflex, much like getting your knee whacked at the doctors office. The area of the brain that processes pain is called the thalamus, which doesn’t develop until later during the pregnancy.

Those who oppose the fetal-anesthesia abortion law say a fetus does not process pain until well after 20 weeks of gestation, including Leah Torres, an OBGYN from Salt Lake City.

“The parts of the brain aren’t even present until the third trimester,” she said.

Click to hear the full interview with Leah Torres.

Condic said this is also true.

“There really is no disagreement about the basic scientific facts," she said. "A fetus does not experience pain prior to 20 weeks, in fact prior to about 30 weeks."


“This debate is not about discredited science,” she said. “It’s about a much more nuanced question of the detection and the response to painful stimuli.”

Torres said the fetus-anestesia abortion law is meant to be a political message. 

"It’s all about politics," she said.