Setting up a Wolf veto, Pa. Senate passes Down syndrome abortion ban

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Setting it on a course for a guaranteed gubernatorial veto, and adding further tinder to the culture wars,  Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a measure banning abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The 27-22 vote came after a deeply partisan debate that saw the chamber’s Democrats denounce the previously approved House bill as an unreasonable intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship that is both unenforceable and unconstitutional.

“Are we asking doctors to be informants?” on their patients, asked Sen. Art Haywood, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, foreshadowing an argument made by other Democratic lawmakers.

Pa. Senate panel advances Down syndrome abortion ban

The bill sponsored by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, cleared the House in May. It 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.

All but two of the chamber’s Republicans, joined by Sen. John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, who switched his registration from Democrat to independent earlier this week, voted in favor of the bill. Yudichak, who is caucusing with Republicans, sat on the GOP side of the Senate chamber on Wednesday night.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood volunteer, has vowed to veto the bill, along with any other GOP-backed bill attempting to restrict abortion rights. In a statement released after the vote, Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, reiterated that pledge.

“There is no evidence that this bill is needed in Pennsylvania and no disability rights group supports this bill. This bill masks yet another attempt to ban abortions and put politicians between a woman and her doctor,” Abbott said.

“What we should be doing is having a conversation about how to help women facing complex pregnancies and people with disabilities get the support they need and deserve,” he continued. “Pennsylvania has made bipartisan progress helping people with disabilities but this is not part of that. Rather, this is a particularly cynical way to impugn women seeking constitutionally protected health care options.”

State Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, who is both a lawyer and a nurse, read letters from parents who are still awaiting services from their state to care for their children living with Down syndrome. If lawmakers were truly interested in protecting those with Down syndrome, they’d be focused on fixing those programs and not “defending … dogma,” she said.

Republican lawmakers said the bill gave the state a chance to step up to protect its most vulnerable. They also reiterated the argument that the procedure was tantamount to eugenics because it allowed people to terminate pregnancies based on what some might believe to be an undesirable trait.

“Most of us know someone without Down syndrome, can you imagine a world without their smile?” asked Sen. Doug Mastriano, the sponsor of a Senate bill that would effectively ban all abortions by prohibiting the procedure when a physician can detect a fetal heartbeat. That typically happens at as early as six to eight weeks’ gestation, which is before most people even know they’re pregnant.

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, who sponsored a Senate version of the bill, made a slippery slope argument, saying parents might choose to screen out other traits, such as male-pattern baldness.

Some Democratic lawmakers, among them Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, pointed to the bill’s constitutional issues.

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.

At a Capitol news conference before the vote, Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate lambasted Republicans, arguing that while GOP lawmakers have shown plenty of interest in trying to ban abortion, they have evinced almost no interest in passing legislation that would ease workplace discrimination for expectant mothers, or provide accommodations for new and nursing mothers.

“We are we so focused on the idea of forced pregnancies?” asked Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery. “That’s not respecting women to make the choices for their own lives.”

In a statement after the vote, Klunk called on Wolf, who earlier declared March 2019 as “Developmental Disabilities  Month,” to sign her bill into law.

If Wolf was serious about that declaration, then “he’ll sign this bill to ensure all people with Down Syndrome will not be discriminated against,” Klunk said in a statement released by her office. “Gov. Wolf, I can’t imagine you support women getting an abortion just because their baby has Down Syndrome, please sign the bill.”

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.