Utah Rep. Karianne Lisonbee says she was shocked by mention of an abortion statistic in Iceland: close to 100 percent of women whose fetuses test positive for Down syndrome terminate their pregnancies.
That revelation apparently spurred Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, to announce Monday she was sponsoring legislation to bar Utah doctors from performing abortions when the procedure is sought due to a Down syndrome diagnosis.
“They must be protected,” Lisonbee said of children with the genetic disorder, during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, adding such abortions are a “terrible form of discrimination” and could lead down a path to eugenics.
Critics argue that such legislation — which has become law in several other U.S. states — is more about restricting abortion access overall, not protecting children with Down syndrome.
Lisonbee’s House Bill 205 — called the Down syndrome Nondiscrimination Abortion Act — would also require physicians to take additional steps of conducting an in-person consultation with pregnant women who have had a positive test; providing them with information about Down syndrome advocacy groups; and referring them to a specialist who “is knowledgeable about providing medical care to a child with Down syndrome.”
Down syndrome occurs when a fetus has the genetic flaw of an extra, 21st chromosome, causing intellectual disabilities and other physical problems in development after birth.
HB205 would make performing an abortion due to a Down syndrome diagnosis of the fetus a class A misdemeanor, though the pregnant women seeking the abortion would not be prosecuted. The bill’s language also does not describe specifics of how such a law would be enforced, and Lisonbee did not directly answer questions on that aspect of her proposal during Monday’s news conference.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the bill’s Senate sponsor, noted that Utah is a “pro-life state,” and conservative legislators would “do all we can to protect the most precious, most vulnerable among us.”
The issue of Down syndrome and pregnancy drew national attention over the summer after the airing of a CBS News report that included the statistic from Iceland. Lisonbee said Monday she was also alarmed by related trends, including that an estimated 67 percent of U.S. pregnancies involving Down syndrome are terminated.
Abortion legislation similar to Lisonbee’s bill has passed in Ohio, North Dakota, Indiana and Louisiana. A federal judge has blocked Indiana’s version, and Louisiana’s law is facing legal challenges.
Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in a statement that HB205 is solely about “restricting access to abortion, not protecting those with Down syndrome.”
“The decision to terminate a pregnancy is a deeply personal and sometimes complex decision that must be left to a woman, in consultation with her family, her faith, and her health care provider,” Galloway said. “Many parents find that having a child with Down syndrome is the right decision for them, but this does not mean that their experience should lead to a law that forces other families into the same situation.”
West Valley City resident Amber Merkley has a 3-year-old son, Finn, with Down syndrome. Merkley said she was devastated to learn of her son’s diagnosis before he was born, in part because she didn’t fully understand the disorder and wasn’t provided sufficient information.
“We were afraid of all the unknowns,” she said — including how her older children would react.
Merkley, who backs Lisonbee’s bill because it would protect people like her son, was offered an option to terminate her pregnancy, she said Monday, but instead decided to learn more about Down syndrome. And she’s glad she did.
Today, Merkley said, Finn has a “beautiful smile,” a “big heart,” and gives out generous hugs and kisses. He’s different, the mother said, “just like everybody else.”