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April 10, 2018

Bill would ban abortions sought because of Down Syndrome diagnosis in Pennsylvania

Politics Abortion
Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg Rlibrandi/Wikipedia Commons

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

In line with similar Republican-led efforts across the country, proposed legislation in Pennsylvania would prevent a woman from having an abortion if the reason for the procedure is the belief that the fetus has Down syndrome.

The bill, introduced by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, passed the GOP-controlled Health Committee on Monday in a vote that went almost along party lines, with one Democrat, Rep. Gerald Mullery, of Luzerne, voting for it.

Under current law, abortions are prohibited if they are sought solely because of the sex of the fetus. House Bill 2050 would add a prenatal diagnosis of down syndrome to that list and make it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion solely for that reason.

In a press release last month, Turzai cited Iceland as an example of why the legislation is necessary. Since prenatal screenings became available in the country in the early 2000s, nearly 100 percent of women have terminated their pregnancies after receiving a positive test for Down syndrome, according to CBS News. Icelandic law allows a woman to get an abortion if there is a prenatal diagnosis of the condition.

"I believe in the dignity of every human being. None of us are born perfect, and we all have something beautiful to contribute," Turzai said. "Pennsylvania is a loving, compassionate community, and we want to extend welcome and support to Down syndrome families. They need to know they’re not alone.”

Rep. Kathy Rapp, chair of the Health Committee and cosponsor of the bill, said at Monday's hearing that what was happening in Iceland was "eugenics."

According to The Washington Post, critics of similar bills in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana, say that such legislation is intended to restrict abortion, not protect people with Down syndrome. They also say it is unconstitutional violates a relationship of trust between a woman and her doctor.

Another criticism, echoed by House Democrats at Monday's committee hearing, is that those who supportive ban won't also support funding more resources for families who have a child with Down syndrome or other disabilities.

The legislation faces roadblocks even if it were to pass both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. First, Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto it; in December, he vetoed a Republican bill in December that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks into a pregnancy. (However, Wolf is up for re-election this year, and all three of his potential GOP challengers support the Down syndrome bill.)

Second, similar bills have been struck down in court. Last month, a federal judge deemed Ohio's ban on such abortions. Per WOSU:

Ohio would have been the third state with a Down syndrome abortion ban, after Republican Gov. John Kasich signed the measure into law in December. But U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black writes that federal law is crystal clear that a state may not prohibit a woman from deciding to terminate a pregnancy before viability. He says opponents are "highly likely" to successfully argue the law is unconstitutional.

The Pennsylvania bill could go to a vote on the House floor as early as next week.