‘We are here to ensure that every life has dignity and worth’: Turzai, allies roll out new Down syndrome abortion-ban bill

State House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, speaks during a news conference on a bill that would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Hoping the second time’s the charm, abortion opponents in the state House rolled out a bill Tuesday that would ban abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome, though such bans have faced constitutional challenges in other states and face a guaranteed veto from Gov. Tom Wolf.

Surrounded by families raising children with the genetic disorder, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and others argued that allowing such procedures was the first step in allowing abortions based on diagnoses of autism, ADHD, or other conditions.

“We are here to ensure that every life has dignity and worth — especially those with Down syndrome,” Klunk said during a state Capitol news conference.

Martin, who’s sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation, denounced what he said was a slippery slope into eugenics.

“We are very much in the fight for life in this country and around the world. This is something that’s more sinister,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act already bans abortions based on gender. Backers said they were adding a “comma” to include Down syndrome to the list of prohibited conditions. But the legal and constitutional challenges facing the bill are more complicated than a matter of grammar.

“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.”

Other precise details of the bill, which has yet to be formally introduced, were scarce, including how it would punish physicians or mothers who perform or obtain such abortions. Backers said they were still drafting language. The bill cleared the House in last year’s legislative session, but died before receiving a final vote.

Martin did acknowledge Wednesday that physicians who perform such procedures could face criminal sanctions.

Turzai, who spoke forcefully on the proposed ban, ignored questions from reporters as he left the news conference. In remarks from the podium, Turzai said policymakers are confronting “an existential question” with the legislation.

A spokesman later said Turzai had to be on the House floor at 11 a.m., which prompted his quick exit from the news conference.

Two of the speakers included a father and his daughter, who has Down syndrome, and a Minnesota woman, Mikayla Holmgren, who is also living with Down syndrome.

Holmgren, who became the first person with Down syndrome to compete in the Miss USA state pageant, said she’d been told as a child that she might never walk or talk.

“I proved them wrong,” she said, adding later, “I am a college graduate.”

The bill, however, faces an uphill slog. Last year, it faced opposition from obstetricians and gynecologists, as well as advocates for people with disabilities, who were notably absent from Wednesday’s news conference.

Similar ban bills brought up in other states have been dealt repeated legal defeats.  Last April, a federal appeals court judge declared unconstitutional an Indiana law that would have banned women from having abortions because of  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.

In an appearance in Columbia, Lancaster County on Tuesday, Wolf said he’d veto the bill if it reached his desk.

In a statement, Maggie Groff, the interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the women’s health organization’s political wing, said that while “we can all all agree that people with Down syndrome can and do lead full lives,” Turzai and Klunk’s proposal was “yet another unconstitutional attempt to ban safe, legal abortion in Pennsylvania.”

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.

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