Legislators send ban on Down syndrome-based abortions to the governor

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) New Senate President Stuart Adams conducts business in the Utah State Senate on the first day of the 2019 legislative session at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

The first of two bills aimed at restricting legal abortions in Utah is headed to the governor’s desk after a final vote of 20-6 in the Senate on Thursday.

HB166 prohibits abortions based on a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome, but would not take effect unless and until similar bans in other states are upheld by the courts.

Asked after Thursday’s vote why the bill is good for Utah, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said it is a sensitive issue.

“The blessing of life and the blessing of Down syndrome kids and their simple way of life and the way they look at things, that’s a hard question to answer,” Adams said, “and hopefully you just see the value of it.”

Members of the Senate approved the bill, sponsored by Clearfield Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, on a party-line vote and without debate. The proposal was approved by the House in mid-February, also along partisan lines.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said she didn’t want to speak for all the members of the Democratic caucus. But her opposing vote, she said, reflected her beliefs about the role and relationship between a physician and patient.

The Senate has yet to hear a second abortion bill, HB136, which bans the procedure after 18 weeks of fetal development. The 18-week ban, sponsored by West Jordan Republican Rep. Cheryl Acton, is expected to be challenged in court if enacted, as Supreme Court precedent establishes fetal viability — around 23 or 24 weeks — as the constitutional standard for a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.

Acton has said her bill is meant to challenge the viability standard, with the sponsor saying that other factors like fetal pain and adverse affects to the mother justify an earlier prohibition on elective abortions.

“We now know much more than we did know about abortion in 1973 and its risks to women’s health,” Acton said Wednesday.

Advocates of abortion rights say the procedure has never been safer and statistics show the abortion rate nationally and in Utah continues a steep downward trend.

Decline in abortions in the U.S. and Utah

On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert was asked about both abortion bills during his monthly televised press conference at KUED.

Herbert said he would prefer the Roe v. Wade standard to have been set legislatively, rather than by the courts, and that the issue of abortion has been among the most divisive in his lifetime.

“I’m a pro-life guy,” Herbert said, “and that’s where my biases are.”

Herbert said he would evaluate each bill individually for his potential signature and that it wouldn’t matter if there were zero, one, two, or five bills on abortion in a given year. He did not commit to signing either bill, but said advancements in science warrant a review of when a fetus reaches viability (though Acton has stated her 18-week window is not based on viability).

The governor called the restriction on Down syndrome-based abortions as “somewhat of a message bill.”

“If that’s the reason that you want to have an abortion,” he said, “that’s probably not a good reason.

Return to Story