Pa. Senate panel advances Down syndrome abortion ban

State Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, discusses her bill banning abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. A Senate panel advanced the bill on a party line vote on Monday, 11/18/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Putting them on course for a guaranteed gubernatorial veto, a state Senate committee voted on party lines Monday to advance a pair of bills imposing new restrictions on a person’s right to access abortion, including a hotly debated measure banning the procedure based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The 7-4 votes by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee came at the beginning of what is expected to be one of the Republican-controlled chamber’s busiest session weeks in recent memory. It also comes just two months before the start of a 2020 campaign season in which Democrats hope to close the GOP’s 27-22 margin by using such culture war measures against them in vulnerable districts in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The Down syndrome proposal, sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, provoked the most impassioned debate during the hour-long meeting.

Klunk’s bill, which cleared the House in May, would expand the state’s existing Abortion Control Act to add the genetic abnormality to gender on the list of reasons a person would be barred from accessing an abortion. The bill provides exceptions in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother.

It would also criminally punish physicians who perform the procedure. The state’s Abortion Control Act hits violators with a third-degree felony, and doctors could face revocation or suspension of their medical licenses.

That led the panel’s Democrats to ask if police or district attorneys would investigate such violations or enforce the law against doctors suspected of breaking it.

“Will we see district attorneys questioning gynecologists?” Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, asked Klunk. “How will they know? Will they request medical records? I don’t think this is workable.”

Klunk said physicians would have to counsel patients that a Down syndrome abortion was a violation of existing law.

“I don’t think government has a role to play,” in the doctor-patient relationship, Schwank responded. “I just find this bill really troubling.”

In an interview after Monday’s committee meeting, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, declined to say whether he planned to bring the Down syndrome ban to a floor vote. The Senate sat on a similar House bill during last year’s legislative session and it died without coming to a vote.

“We’ll caucus and make a decision from there,” Corman said. Asked if he was inclined to bring the bill to the floor, Corman quipped, “I’ve found that, as leader, I don’t get my inclinations. I do what the caucus wants me to do.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood volunteer, has said he plans to veto the bill — along with any other legislation restricting abortion rights — if it reaches his desk.

The Senate panel’s debate unfolded before a group of blue t-shirted parents and children in support of the bill. More than once, lawmakers on both sides of the issue thanked them for making the choice to bring their children to term. But Republicans and Democrats broke on whether government had a right to mandate that choice.

“This bill is not just about abortion, this bill is about a eugenic practice,” said Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, who is sponsoring the Senate companion to Klunk’s bill. “To me, these lives matter.”

Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, agreed on the importance of choice, pointing to his decision to have his own children, and also to bring stepchildren into his family. But, he added, his decision to have a family remained a choice he undertook voluntarily. Klunk’s bill would remove that element of choice, he said.

Lawmakers were also voting on the bill without benefit of a hearing from public health experts or being advised on its constitutionality, he added.

Last month, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati blocked Ohio’s version of the bill, with a judge concluding that it was invalid under “Supreme Court precedents because it had the purpose and effect of preventing some women from obtaining pre-viability abortions,” Reuters reported. Under Roe v. Wade, a woman can obtain an abortion for any reason until the 24th week of gestation. Doctors violating the Ohio ban could have up to 18 months in jail, Reuters reported.

The Senate panel also advanced legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, one of that chamber’s most vocal abortion opponents, that would provide perinatal hospice care to women whose fetuses are diagnosed with a “life-limiting condition.”

“This bill helps mothers and fathers through a difficult situation,” said the Senate committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer. “I see this as step forward in a difficult situation.”

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, a “no” vote on both measures, said she didn’t oppose counseling parents on their options. But, she noted, Rapp’s bill left abortion off the list of options.

“It does not include information on safe and legal abortion,” which some women might decide is the right choice for them, Muth said. “This would intrude on the doctor/patient relationship.

Rapp’s bill now also heads to the full Senate for a vote.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.