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Friday, February 13, 2004

Bill requiring anesthesia for fetus before abortion rejected in Senate

"The anatomy is there," for a fetus to feel pain, said one expert. That idea is "junk science," another said.

By Kevin Miller

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    RICHMOND - Senate lawmakers rejected legislation Thursday that would have required doctors to anesthetize a fetus moments before performing an abortion.

    During an hour of testimony, Senate Education and Health Committee members heard competing accounts from licensed physicians on whether a human fetus feels pain during the first and second trimesters.

    Senate Bill 371, sponsored by Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax County, stated that any fetus older than 12 weeks must receive painkillers "suitable for patients undergoing amputation" before being aborted. Failure to anesthetize the fetus would constitute a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

    Dr. Jean Wright, a pediatrician specializing in critically ill children and anesthesiology, told the committee that fetuses begin developing nerve endings as early as the sixth week of gestation.

    But because a fetus has yet to develop normal human coping mechanisms, the fetus may even suffer more than an adult, she said.

    "The anatomy is there. The physiology is there. And, thirdly, we know the sensitivity to pain is ... more intense," Wright testified via telephone from Georgia.

    Dr. Steven Zielinski, a board-certified physician of internal medicine, said his own research and that of other doctors worldwide confirms that a second-trimester fetus's response to needles is more than a mere reflex.

    But Dr. Robert Rashti, a neurosurgeon and president of Planned Parenthood of Southeast Virginia, dubbed most of the studies suggesting fetal pain before the end of the second trimester "junk science." Rashti said a fetus less than 22 weeks old lacks the pain receptors, fibers and brain function to feel pain.

    Rashti said anesthetics could be dangerous to the woman - a point Cuccinelli and Wright sharply refuted - and suggested that only medical professionals should make such decisions.

    "As a physician, I am very concerned about the prospect of the legislature specifying treatment for any medical procedure," Rashti said.

    The bill died on a 6-9 vote.

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