Pa. House passes Down syndrome abortion ban, Gov. Wolf vows veto

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Danielle Friel Otten’s floor speech referred to her sister’s experience, not her own. 

After a two-hour long debate featuring personal stories and questions of constitutionality, the Pennsylvania House approved a bill to ban abortion based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he would veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

Tuesday’s 117-76 vote comes in the midst of a national argument on abortion rights after such states as Ohio and Georgia passed bills that strictly restrict access to the procedure.

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, who sponsored the bill with Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, portrayed the measure as an attempt to protect human dignity and a stand against discrimination based on the presence of an extra chromosome.

Democrats made the counterargument that the bill is unconstitutional.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, even cited an advisory from the Legislative Reference Bureau, which writes the General Assembly’s legislation, that said the bill “unconstitutionally prohibits a woman from obtaining an abortion prior to the unborn child reaching viability.”

Under the proposal, a doctor who knowingly terminates a pregnancy after a diagnosis would be guilty of a third-degree felony.

Turzai introduced a similar bill last year, which passed the House by a 139-56 vote, with 24 Democrats joining all but three Republicans.

This year, 15 Democrats joined with the majority, while four Republicans defected.

Democrats had hoped that Tuesday’s vote would show the growing strength of abortion rights supporters in their ranks. In the end, five Democrats changed their votes.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which balked on a vote last year. Senate GOP spokesperson Jenn Kocher said the bill has yet to be caucused at this point.

Wolf, a staunch ally of abortion rights, said through a spokesperson that he would veto the measure.

“There is no evidence that this bill is needed in Pennsylvania. This bill is a Trojan horse: it simply disguises another attempt to ban abortions and put politicians between a woman and her doctor,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email. “If supporters of this bill want to have a larger conversation about how the state can better support women facing complex pregnancies and individuals with severe disabilities, Governor Wolf would be eager to do so.”

During Tuesday’s debate, lawmakers often cited personal experience with individuals with Down syndrome or disabilities. Republicans cited these stories as inspirational examples of the the value of life.

But Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, shared a story in voice her sister, who gave birth to a child with multiple disabilities. While Otten said her sister has no regrets about carrying the pregnancy to term, she concluded it is always up to a woman to decide what is right for her.

Democrats also asked Republicans to put more public money where their mouths were, and spend more on human services for individuals with disabilities.

Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia, pointed to the statewide, 13,000-deep waiting list for in-home care for people with intellectual disabilities. Other lawmakers cited the need for increases in education spending or the minimum wage.

Some human services programs have seen increases in funding since the 2015-16 budget, the first under Wolf and Turzai.

For example, a key Medicaid waiver was increased by roughly a third to $1.58 million. State special education funding increased over that same time period by $60 million, or 5.5 percent.

Klunk said she has asked House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, to allocate more funding in this year’s budget for people with intellectual disabilities.

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