Pennsylvania Senate passes Down syndrome abortion ban bill

Marc Levy
Associated Press
Pennsylvania Capitol building
(Photo by Liz Evans Scolforo)

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s state Senate passed a bill Wednesday to outlaw abortions because of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, although it faces a veto on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

The bill is the latest volley against abortion rights by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature, and it will be the second abortion restriction legislation to be vetoed by Wolf, a Democrat.

The Senate voted 27-22, nearly along party lines, six months after the bill passed the state House of Representatives. Similar legislation died in the Senate last year, but the bill has a prominent champion in House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who has continued to press for its passage.

The vote comes amid a wave of abortion restrictions advancing in conservative states. That includes efforts to ban abortion based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome, although federal courts have consistently blocked such laws in other states.

In a statement after the vote Wednesday, Wolf’s office said he would veto the bill, and said it “seeks to limit health care choices for women and politicize difficult moments for vulnerable families.”

“This bill masks yet another attempt to ban abortions and put politicians between a woman and her doctor,” Wolf’s office said.

The state, Wolf’s office said, instead should be discussing how to help women facing complex pregnancies and people with disabilities.

Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality that causes developmental delays and medical conditions such as heart defects and respiratory and hearing problems.

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about one in every 700 babies in the United States — or about 6,000 a year — is born with the condition, which results from a chromosomal irregularity.

Supporters say the bill protects a vulnerable population and carries exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s life.

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, criticized medical professionals for making parents believe that they should not have a child who is diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb.

“This is eugenics, this is not health care,” Martin said during floor debate. “These are parents who actually want to have children, who are presented as if this child will actually be a burden, who cannot live a productive life. ... These children have the ability to live long, productive lives, even past the age of 60.”

Democrats countered that the bill interferes with the doctor-patient relationship, and called it ham-handed, unenforceable and unconstitutional. The bill lacks support from disability rights groups or civil rights groups, they said, and it came to a floor vote with hearings or input from medical professionals.

“The bill simply takes away the authority granted to a woman by the United States Supreme Court, period,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia.

North Dakota has a broader law on genetic abnormalities in effect, but federal courts have blocked them in Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana Ohio and Missouri.