Bill would ban abortions based on Down syndrome diagnosis

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The 2018 Utah Legislative Session closes on March 8, 2018 at the Utah State Capitol. (Photo by Robert Cutts/Wikimedia Commons)

A bill that would ban doctors from performing abortions because a baby may have Down syndrome is headed to the Senate floor.

The Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee approved the bill Monday evening in a 3-2 vote. It already passed the House, despite a warning from the legislative general counsel that it has a “high probability of being declared unconstitutional by a court.”

Several other states have similar laws, some of which are in various stages of being challenged in the courts.

House Bill 205, sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, would require doctors to provide certain information to a pregnant woman when a prenatal screening indicates her baby may have Down syndrome. It also would ban doctors from performing an abortion if the only reason a woman wants the procedure is because her child may have Down syndrome.

Lisonbee likened the practice of terminating pregnancies because a child may have Down syndrome to eugenics. “Social engineering is alive and well in Utah’s abortion clinics.”

She said she’s heard from people that some doctors immediately advise parents to terminate pregnancies when they’ve gotten test results indicating their child may have Down syndrome. And that doctors don’t give them any information about what life is really like for a person with Down syndrome.

Gerald Nebeker with the Utah Down Syndrome Foundation told the committee that women feel pressured by doctors to quickly make a decision about abortion after getting a possible Down syndrome diagnosis. He said they’re not getting all the information they need about Down syndrome.

However, Dr. Michelle Debbink, an obgyn and maternal fetal medicine specialist, called the bill unconstitutional and said it will end open and honest discussions between doctors and women.

This bill inappropriately inserts government into decision that should be made by families, said Marina Lowe with the ACLU of Utah. She said instead of spending money on the legal challenges that will come with this bill, the state should take care of disabled Utahns.

Dr. Chris Hutchison, an obgyn, said a problem with the bill is that it’s too vague. It says that doctors need to provide patients with contact information for a state or national Down syndrome parents group as well as a referral to a doctor or other specialist with knowledge about medical care for a child with Down syndrome. He said there isn’t a Down syndrome medical specialty for children. But there are pediatricians who care for more Down syndrome kids than other doctors. He asked that the state put together a website with a list of resources and referrals for doctors.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, asked how many babies are aborted because they might have Down syndrome. He mentioned a 70 percent abortion rate. Hutchison said he didn’t have any numbers for the state. But in his practice with six doctors they have one to two Down syndrome diagnoses per year. “Not one has gone to abortion.”

Several parents of children with Down syndrome spoke to the committee in support of the bill.

“They have a right to be here and they have a right to be born as they are,” said Rose Carter, who has a child with Down syndrome.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, had a son with Down syndrome who passed away recently. “All of us have disabilities. … Anyone who says we need to get rid of this child because this child has problems then all of us should go.”

But he said he had concerns with the bill. “Solely is a giant loophole.”

And it will end up costing the state money in legal fees. He wondered if the money would be better spent helping states that are already fighting lawsuits against similar bills. “In this position right now I prefer to wait and see what happens in other states.”

He suggested waiting to vote and amending the bill, but that motion failed.

Lisonbee said she is willing to amend the bill to make it better.

Hillyard, Thatcher and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross voted for the bill. Sens. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, voted against the measure. The full Senate will now debate the bill.

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Amie Rose has more than 14 years of experience writing and editing at newspapers in Utah and New Mexico. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. She lives in Utah Valley with her husband, toddler and crazy dog.

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