Pa. House tries anew to ban Down syndrome abortions

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is launching another effort to outlaw abortions because of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, passing legislation Tuesday that faces a veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, if it even reaches his desk.

The vote comes amid a wave of abortion restrictions advancing in more conservative states, setting them on a course to virtually eliminate abortion access in parts of the Midwest and Deep South, in hopes that a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court will approve.

The Republican-controlled House passed the bill, 117-76, after two hours of sometimes emotional debate about pregnancies, children and relatives living with disabilities. The vote was well short of a veto-proof margin.

It goes to the GOP-controlled Senate. However, similar legislation died last year in the Senate, and its support remains uncertain there, particularly after Democrats who support abortion rights picked up seats.

The bill hews closely to legislation advanced by abortion-rights opponents in other states, and House debate broke down along the lines of those who support and oppose abortion rights.

Wolf's office said he would veto the bill, calling it a "Trojan horse" and "another attempt to ban abortions and put politicians between a woman and her doctor."

Wolf's office went on to say that there is no evidence that the law is needed in Pennsylvania and that Wolf is eager to discuss how the state can better support individuals with disabilities and women facing complex pregnancies.

Senate Republican leadership offered only a brief, neutral statement, saying the bill will be referred to the appropriate committee and that the caucus has not discussed it.

Pennsylvania law allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy for any reason except to choose the gender. The bill would add to that prohibition a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The bill carries exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Backers said it would protect a vulnerable population whose lives are productive.

"People with Down syndrome have contributed so much, so much to our daily lives and our society as a whole and they will all continue to do so when we finally recognize that each of their precious lives is worth living," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, said during floor debate.

Opponents argued it violates the right of women to make their own decisions about abortion and cautioned against forcing parents to raise children with the genetic chromosomal disorder.

They called it ham-handed, unenforceable and an invasion of privacy that attempts to use children with disabilities to win a political battle over abortion rights. They pointed out that the chamber's Republican leaders refused to allow votes on amendments seeking to boost help for children with disabilities.

"This bill is just another unconstitutional abortion ban from the same legislators who attempt to roll back the right to a safe, legal abortion every single legislative session," Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, said during floor debate.

A similar law is in effect in North Dakota, but laws in three other states have been blocked by federal courts. One of them, Indiana, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal. Meanwhile, a similar law in Arkansas will take effect in July and a Utah law is awaiting a positive court decision to take effect.

It's not clear how many abortions in Pennsylvania are because of a Down syndrome diagnosis. The state Department of Health publishes an annual abortion statistics report, but does not collect such statistics about Down syndrome or genetic anomalies.

Wolf has previously rejected abortion legislation advanced by the Republican-controlled Legislature. He rejected a measure in 2017 that would have prohibited elective abortions after 20 weeks and, opponents say, banned the most common method of second-trimester abortion.