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House passes bill banning abortions based on Down Syndrome

It's the second time in five months that the House has passed a bill restricting abortion without holding a public hearing.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill prohibiting abortions based on a diagnosis – or even just a belief – that a fetus has Down syndrome.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill prohibiting abortions based on a diagnosis – or even just a belief – that a fetus has Down syndrome.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP, File

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's House passed a politically charged bill Monday that would prohibit abortions based on a diagnosis — or even just a belief — that a fetus has Down syndrome.

The House passed the bill with bipartisan support, 139-56, marking the second time in five months that the Republican-led chamber has rushed through a bill restricting abortions without holding a public hearing.

Sponsored by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), the bill goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Democratic Gov. Wolf opposes the bill and likely would veto it if it were to reach his desk.

The measure prohibits abortions when they are sought exclusively because of "a prenatal diagnosis of, or belief that the unborn child has, Down syndrome." Similar measures have passed in other states but face legal challenges on grounds they are unconstitutional restrictions on abortion rights.

Turzai has said he introduced the bill after he read reports about abortion after Down syndrome diagnoses in Iceland. Rep. Kate Klunk (R., York), speaking on the House floor Monday, described the bill as an effort to prevent "eugenics," and bill cosponsor Judy Ward (R., Blair) read a series of quotes from families who said their lives had been enriched by children with Down syndrome.

State law now allows abortion for any reason up until 24 weeks' gestation, with the exception of termination based on the gender of the fetus.

"Opponents of this legislation fight any reasonable limitation to abortion," Randall Wenger, the Pennsylvania Family Institute's chief counsel, said in a statement.

Fellow institute attorney Jeremy Samek said: "We should be encouraging the current support systems available to help with raising a child with Down syndrome. And we should be providing information on adoption to women who feel like they cannot provide for a child with Down syndrome."

Critics of the bill argue that it doesn't provide any additional services for children born with the condition. Some, including State Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D., Montgomery), have said they fear this bill would result in "state-imposed" pregnancy, which would violate the Constitution. Multiple medical groups, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, also oppose the legislation.

Included in the critics are some women who chose to continue a pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis and others who chose to have an abortion after the diagnosis.

Jennifer Schrad, of Bryn Mawr, said the day she learned that her daughter would likely be born with Down syndrome was "the most difficult day of our lives." She and her husband received information about Down syndrome that they ultimately felt was outdated and incomplete. They chose to continue with the pregnancy.

But, Schrad said: "Choosing to continue our pregnancy was our decision to make. We would not want politicians in Harrisburg making that choice for any other woman facing similar circumstances."

In an interview, one Bucks County mother who chose to have an abortion after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis called it "the most difficult decision a person can make."

The mother, who asked that only her first name — Elizabeth — be used, for fear of backlash, said she and her husband did a lot of research before making the decision to terminate the pregnancy, speaking to medical and other health professionals, as well as families raising children with Down syndrome.

Among the factors she and her husband considered was who would care for her child if she and her husband died. Neither has a large network of people who could have stepped in to help.

"I can't tell you for sure I made the right decision," said Elizabeth, who opposes the bill and made herself available to abortion-rights advocacy groups to share her experience with lawmakers and reporters. Taking away a family's ability to make the choice, in consultation with medical professionals and others they trust, sets a dangerous precedent, she said.

"It's such an insult to how personal and painful this is," she said.

"What's dangerous about this particular bill is that they are using Down syndrome as a playing card to draw support for what is really an attack on reproductive rights," she said. "It's cruel."