GOP-controlled state House panel advances Down syndrome abortion ban

    (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

    The House Health Committee voted along party lines Monday to advance a controversial proposal to ban abortions after an in-utero Down syndrome diagnosis.

    The panel voted 15-9 to approve legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, that amends current state law to add a Down syndrome diagnosis to the list of conditions under which a woman can not seek an abortion. Right now, state law only explicitly prohibits abortions “solely” based on the sex of the fetus.

    The House approved similar language last year by a wide margin, with 24 Democrats joining all but three Republicans in voting yes. But the Senate balked at picking up the legislation.

    Supporters of the bill, like state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, point to the example of Iceland. A 2017 report by CBS on the North Atlantic island nation’s abortion policies claimed that nearly every pregnant women who receives a positive test for Down syndrome terminates their pregnancy.

    The story stoked conservative outrage nationally and in Pennsylvania. In arguing for her bill, Klunk said that the state should “not allow policies that erase” people with Down syndrome “from existence.”

    “We have a right to stand up to eugenics,” Klunk added.

    A 2012 review of medical literature from the University of South Carolina that focused on pregnant American women found lower rates of termination of their pregnancy following a Down syndrome diagnosis, averaging between 50 to 85 percent depending on the study.

    The review also found evidence that termination rates have decreased over the years.

    Similar bills have passed in five states, including Ohio and Indiana. Federal judges struck down both of those laws following legal challenges, and they are on appeal.

    Democrats opposed to the bill made similar claims, saying the bill was an unconstitutional assault on a woman’s right to have an abortion.

    “We sit here and want to make life decisions for all women in Pennsylvania,” Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, said. “We don’t know everything.”

    Democrats also countered that the bill did nothing to help intellectual and physically disabled kids out of the womb, such as expanding funding to state programs. But Republicans countered that they have increased funding for programs to aid special needs families.

    Since the 2015-16 fiscal year, when Turzai became Speaker and Gov. Tom Wolf was first elected governor, the state’s budget for a key Medicaid disability waiver has increased by a little less than 32 percent — from $1.2 million to $1.58 million.

    Health Committee Chairwoman Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, who is a staunch opponent of abortion rights, said the bill could get a floor vote as soon as next week.

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