On party-line vote, Utah House approves banning abortions based on fetal Down syndrome diagnosis

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this Aug. 25, 2015, file photo, Whitney Duhaime, center, shares her opinions with an anti-abortion protester as the Planned Parenthood Action Council holds a community rally at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. The Utah House on Friday passed a bill aimed at banning abortions sought solely because of a Down syndrome diagnosis.

Legislation that aims for an eventual ban on seeking abortions simply because of a fetal Down syndrome diagnosis won approval from the Utah House on Friday with a vote that broke along party lines.

The 54-15 decision followed an emotional half-hour discussion, in which Republicans said the bill was a safeguard against social engineering and Democrats argued it was an intrusion on some of the most personal and sensitive medical decisions.

Utah Rep. Karianne Lisonbee is sponsoring the bill, HB166, a tweaked version of a proposal that failed in the Senate in 2018 after clearing the House. Legislative attorneys identified potential constitutional problems with last year’s bill, but Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, contends that the updated version sidesteps these issues and wouldn’t land the state in a costly court battle.

Republican Rep. Brady Brammer said it's money he'd be willing to spend even if the state were at legal risk.

“It would be litigation that is well worth it, that is worth every penny,” Brammer, of Highland, said.

Lisonbee said Utah is legally covered by her bill because the proposed ban would only kick in if the courts uphold similar prohibitions in other states.

Other sections of the legislation would take effect right away, such as a requirement that physicians disclose knowledge that a woman wanted an abortion solely because of a fetal diagnosis of the genetic disorder.

This provision would effectively turn doctors into "thought police" for their patients, said Democratic Rep. Suzanne Harrison, who is a physician.

Harrison, of Draper, said she agrees with Lisonbee that people with Down syndrome are precious and that their lives deserve protection.

"I also believe the doctor-patient relationship to be sacred," she said. "This bill literally places the government in the middle of a conversation between a doctor and her patient, and as a practicing medical doctor, this gives me great distress and concern."

Lisonbee's bill would also call on the Utah Department of Health to create a website with links to support organizations and foundations with information about Down syndrome. These resources would also be shared with women who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis, she said.

The legislation includes exemptions from the proposed abortion ban in cases of rape or incest, if the life of the mother is at risk or if the fetus has a lethal defect.

A similar proposal passed in Indiana is already in the courts, Lisonbee noted. The 2016 law was ruled unconstitutional, but Indiana’s attorney general and his peers from other states — including Utah — have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal.

Now that Lisonbee’s bill has cleared the House, it heads to the Senate.