GOP’s Down syndrome bill is a reminder that states are the battleground over abortion rights | Opinion

February 15, 2019 6:30 am

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny (“Friends of Mike Turzai” / WikiMedia Commons)

It wasn’t matter of “if,” but rather “when,” abortion-rights opponents in the Pennsylvania General Assembly were going to launch this year’s campaign against a woman’s right to choose.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, and House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, got the pointless charade going again, as they announced plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban abortion based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

“Under current law, a woman can obtain an abortion prior to 24 weeks gestational age for any reason if a physician deems it is necessary, except if the woman’s sole reason is to select the sex of the child,” Turzai and Klunk wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors for their proposal. “This bill will expand that exception to prohibit aborting the child solely due to a prenatal diagnosis that the unborn child has Down Syndrome. Nothing in this proposal would interfere with the existing ability of a woman to obtain an abortion in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother, which are contained in different sections of the Abortion Control Act.”

So, here we go again. We know what to expect.

Plan for the same volley of press conferences and overheated rhetoric, with more than likely the same result: a vote, and possible approval, in the state House, and, then, likely inaction by the Republican-controlled Senate in the face of an all-but-guaranteed gubernatorial veto.

Even so, the bill is a reminder that the real arena in the fight over abortion rights continues to be state Capitols across the land.

Turzai and others, including Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, who sponsored a similar Senate proposal, made a splash last year when they introduced the bill for the first time. They filled the main staircase in the Capitol rotunda with parents and children who are living with Down syndrome.

They also featured Karen Gaffney, an accomplished swimmer and public speaker, who’s the first person with Down syndrome to ever receive an honorary doctorate from a college or university.

The parents and Gaffney argued passionately that people with Down syndrome often lead vibrant and productive lives. And they argued that aborting Down syndrome babies was opening the door to eugenics.

The optics were compelling. The problem is that it was exactly the wrong argument to have.

Last year, no one was talking about a prohibition on bringing Down syndrome babies to term. No one is saying people born with Down syndrome can’t go on to lead rich and happy lives. And raising the specter of eugenics was just a blatant scare tactic and deliberate play for the heartstrings.

What we were talking about then – and will debate again this year —  is another attempt by anti-choice lawmakers, who can’t get their way in court, and who were dealt yet another defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court last week, to find a way to legislate a constitutionally protected medical procedure out of existence.

Let’s get this out of the way right away: The kind of invasive bill that it appears Klunk and Turzai want to forcibly deliver into law this year is, based on past experience, most likely unconstitutional, practically unenforceable, and undeniably hypocritical.

First the legal part: Similar ban bills brought up in other states have been dealt legal defeat after legal defeat. Last April, a federal appeals court judge declared unconstitutional an Indiana law that would have banned women from having abortions because of the gender, race, or disability (including Down syndrome).

The decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said the 2016 ban on “selective” abortions, signed into law by then-Gov. Mike Pence, was an “undue burden” on the ability to have the procedure, Reuters reported.

That, of course, is also part of the plan. Opponents want to make it so difficult and so onerous that women will decide against abortion — and more about that in a minute.

Now for the practically unenforceable part.

To make this law work, someone would have to prove that a woman sought an abortion based on a Down syndrome. First off, that would require a woman’s physician to violate doctor-patient privilege by disclosing confidential medical information. If you know anything about doctors, it’s that they hate being forced to do that.

You’d also have to get a woman to admit that she sought an abortion based on that diagnosis. She would rightfully tell you that it’s her body, and thus, Mr. Turzai and Ms. Klunk, it’s none of your business.

And now for the hypocritical part. As interested as abortion opponents have been in meddling in reproductive rights, hard experience has shown they have proven equally unwilling to provide expectant and new mothers with the support services they need to raise healthy children.

To their credit, Republicans have, in the past, voted to approve Wolf administration language increasing state funding for intellectual disability programs. But those same Republicans once also floated the idea of cutting Pennsylvania’s Medicaid contribution to balance the state’s books.

Turzai’s and Klunk’s bill does “nothing to address the serious underlying concerns that lead to discrimination against those with disabilities in our community. That’s why last session not a single disability rights group endorsed this legislation,” Sari Stevens, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said in a statement Thursday. “That’s why families with children with Down syndrome spoke against it. And that’s why the measure was pushed without the benefit of hearings as a way to stifle honest debate. Let’s call this what it is: yet another unconstitutional attempt to ban safe, legal abortion in Pennsylvania.”

Given the multitude of challenges facing Pennsylvania — from finding more money for workforce development programs and reinvigorating the state’s infrastructure to finally passing a higher minimum wage — it’s perfectly reasonable to ask why Turzai and his cohorts are mounting this fight when they know exactly how it will end.

The answer is that there’s no reasonable answer. Pennsylvania voters spoke loud and clear at the polls last year when they turned out Republicans in Congress and the Legislature and sent progressives to Harrisburg and Washington in their place.

And this bill is a straight-up losing proposition for Republicans. If they’re serious about governing, they should move on.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.