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Pa. lawmakers pushing controversial bill banning Down syndrome abortions

Pennsylvania legislators are pushing a controversial abortion bill that would ban abortions after a Down syndrome diagnosis. The bill had appeared dead but has been revived during the busiest legislative month in the Capitol.

Republican Rep. Mike Turzai, who introduced Senate bill banning the aborting of Down syndrome fetuses.
Republican Rep. Mike Turzai, who introduced Senate bill banning the aborting of Down syndrome fetuses.Read moreKeith Srakocic / AP

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved House Bill 2050, introduced by Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and passed in the House in April. Its supporters say it would protect children with a developmental disability. Critics have called it a thinly veiled attempt to roll back abortion rights in the state.

If the full Senate passes the bill, Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, likely would veto it. He vetoed another measure in December that would have banned abortion 20 weeks into a pregnancy or later, and has said he opposes this one.

Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster) said on Wednesday the latest bill would create a protection similar to a current law that bans abortions based on the sex of the fetus.

"We really need to be protective of the fact that we don't engage in anything that's very eugenic," Martin said. "We've seen what that's done in our country before."

Down syndrome can be detected in fetuses through blood tests and amniocentesis, a test that samples amniotic fluid in the uterus to detect developmental abnormalities.

Martin said he fears the test could be inaccurate and added that people with Down syndrome can  "live just normal, successful lives as so many of us in our communities."

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who chairs the committee, said, "We don't want to be in a situation where we're choosing groups of people who should live and who should not live."

The bill has been the subject of political maneuvering in recent weeks. When several months passed without any movement in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Turzai proposed tacking this abortion measure onto a human-trafficking bill in the House that was sponsored by Greenleaf. After the Senate committee passed Turzai's bill on Wednesday, Turzai withdrew his proposal. Greenleaf said he had hoped that would occur.

Asked about the timing of his committee's vote on the abortion measure, Greenleaf said: "If I don't get it out now, then we may not be in session. Next week may be our last week to be in session. It's not just that bill, it's all the other bills [in committee]."

Asked later in the day whether the bill, the only one that came up for a vote Wednesday before the committee, would be brought to a floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said the issue had not yet been discussed with other Republican senators.

The bill's passage was lauded by at least one group that has advocated for the passage of abortion bills in the past.

Michael Geer, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said the bill was "an important first step" to protect the lives of people with Down syndrome.

Some Democrats were critical of the bill.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) asked during Wednesday's hearing how the bill would be enforced once a woman receives the fetus' diagnosis.

Martin said the only way an abortion could be prevented is if the woman clearly discloses to a clinic that she is seeking the abortion because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome.

That troubled Leach and others on the committee.

"There is no revealing to an abortion clinic … what the woman's diagnosis was," Leach said. "Even if the woman has a diagnosis, and even if it is revealed somehow. … If the woman has an alternative reason, they'd still be allowed to get the abortion."

"I'm not sure I understand what the law actually does, and that troubles me," he added.

Geer said he interprets the bill as one that still allows a woman's right to an abortion, but restricts the actions of a doctor to pressure a woman to undergo an abortion after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis for her fetus. He said his group has received numerous responses from parents who allege they were pressured by doctors or genetic counselors to undergo an abortion after this diagnosis.

"This legislation would now teach that that's no longer the professional thing to do," Geer added. "We think that respect and dignity begins at the diagnosis [of Down syndrome]. We're excited about this bill, because it helps stop the targeting of unborn children because they have a diagnosis of Down syndrome."

Pennsylvania's chapter of Planned Parenthood and the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy have previously called the bill "deeply dangerous" and "exploitative."

"While we vehemently believe that all lives of disabled people are worth celebration and support, we condemn the legislature's attempt to force pregnant people to carry unwanted pregnancies while refusing to also support families and individuals with the basic services they need to be fully integrated in our communities and realize their fundamental rights," Cori Frazer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Center, said in a statement when the bill was advancing through the House in April.

The bill, if passed, could be subjected to a legal test as well.

Sen. Art Haywood, a Democrat representing parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties, said on Wednesday that the bill was "clearly unconstitutional" and did not support its movement out of committee.

Martin said he "would not doubt there will be a legal challenge."