Pa. lawmakers bring back bill penalizing doctors for abortions due to Down syndrome

Organizations like Planned Parenthood have also derided the initiative as a way to chip away at abortion rights.

Pro-life protesters gather outside of Planned Parenthood on Saturday morning in Warminster, Pa., to support a proposal to defund the organization. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Pro-life protesters gather outside of Planned Parenthood on Saturday morning in Warminster, Pa., to support a proposal to defund the organization. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

A handful of Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Mike Turzai, have announced they are resuscitating legislation that would make it a third-degree felony for doctors in the state to perform abortions based solely on prenatal Down syndrome diagnoses.

The measure isn’t introduced yet. But its supporters — who largely oppose abortion in general — indicated it will be similar to, if not the same as a proposal that failed to pass the Senate last legislative session.

Governor Tom Wolf has said that it if the bill makes it to his desk, he’ll veto it. Organizations like Planned Parenthood have also derided the initiative as a way to chip away at abortion rights.

Republican Scott Martin, a Lancaster County Senator who is sponsoring his chamber’s version of the measure, acknowledged that “a lot of the folks on this stage [announcing the bill], are very much in the fight for life in this country and around the world.”

But he said they also want to affirm that the lives of people with Down syndrome are worth living. And, he said, they want to fight against something “more sinister.”

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“This is a practice of eugenics,” Martin said, a sentiment repeated by many of the speakers.

The “eugenics” argument refers to abortion practices in countries like Iceland, which reports a nearly 100 percent rate of termination for pregnancies in which Down syndrome is detected through voluntary prenatal screenings.

At the press conference announcing the proposal, there was some confusion from the lawmakers involved over what the bill’s language would actually be.

Staffers later clarified that like the unsuccessful bill the same group of lawmakers introduced last session, this would add the Down syndrome restriction to the commonwealth’s existing Abortion Control Act alongside another, similar restriction: a ban on performing an abortion based on the fetus’s sex.

Pennsylvania is one of eight states that ban sex-selective abortion. Illinois and Indiana have attempted to pass similar laws, but they’ve been blocked by federal judges.

The commonwealth’s Abortion Control Act dictates that along with facing a third-degree felony, any doctor who performs an abortion for a banned reason may be found “guilty of ‘unprofessional conduct’ and his license for the practice of medicine and surgery shall be subject to suspension or revocation.”

The women who obtain abortions would not face any penalties.

In previous arguments over the effectiveness of banning abortions based on a Down syndrome diagnosis, opponents have pointed out that the law might be difficult to enforce.

Existing law says in the case of a gender-selective abortion, it is the responsibility of the State Board of Medicine and the State Board of Osteopathic Medicine to “vigorously enforce” laws that ban “unprofessional conduct” from physicians.

Martin said he believes just passing a law will deter doctors from offering abortion as an option after a Down syndrome diagnosis, and that reporting malpractice wouldn’t usually be necessary.

“This isn’t to paint doctors as if they run around and do things that are contrary to law,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that [after a Down syndrome diagnosis] they’re not going to sit there…and say, oh we can abort that.”

Despite being announced by a group of Republicans, the measure has seen bipartisan support in the past. When the House approved a version last year, 24 of the 139 affirmative votes came from Democrats. Three Republicans voted against the measure, and five lawmakers — four Democrats and a Republican — didn’t vote.

For their announcement of this year’s iteration of the bill, supporters shared the stage with several young people with Down syndrome.

One of the key speakers was Mikayla Holmgren, a dancer and teacher’s aid from Minnesota who, in 2017, became the first person with Down syndrome to compete in a state Miss USA pageant.

“When I was born six weeks early, the doctors said that I may never walk or talk,” she told the audience at the press conference. “I proved them wrong.”

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