Lawmakers in Ohio took steps this week to bar abortions when they are sought because a fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome, one of more than a dozen abortion restrictions passed in the state in recent years.
The state legislature approved the bill Wednesday, sending it to the desk of Gov. John Kasich (R), who has not said explicitly whether he plans to sign it. He is a staunch abortion opponent, and earlier this year he called a prohibition on abortion in cases of the genetic disorder “appropriate.”
If the bill is enacted, Ohio would become the latest state to try to stop women from aborting fetuses when they discover through prenatal testing that they have a chromosomal defect. Similar laws have been passed in North Dakota, Indiana and Louisiana, though the latter two have been blocked by the courts.
The issue of abortion in the case of genetic disorders is particularly fraught because of recent advances in prenatal testing. Down syndrome, which occurs when a person has an extra 21st chromosome and causes cognitive delays and other problems, can now be predicted through a blood test as early as 10 weeks into pregnancy. A firm diagnosis usually requires more invasive follow-up testing.
Disability groups have been divided over state-level bans such as the one in Ohio, with many national organizations staying out of the conversation. Some disability rights activists favor the bans, saying the country is on a slippery slope toward eugenics. Others argue that abortion bans do nothing to improve the lives of those living with disabilities and infringe on womens’ rights.
The Ohio measure is different than others because it focuses solely on Down syndrome, versus other medical concerns. Doctors who knowingly violate the ban would face losing their medical licenses and could serve jail time. Women seeking the terminations, however, would not be punished.
In Ohio, the vote drew cheers from anti-abortion activists, who say it is wrong to abort a child simply because he or she has a genetic defect. “Every Ohioan deserves the right to life, no matter how many chromosomes they have,” Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said in a statement.
Angela Boblitt, an anti-abortion activist who has a 4-year-old child with Down syndrome and runs an adoption agency, said in an interview that she was pleased with the vote – both because it will protect kids like her daughter Lucy, and also because it advances the anti-abortion cause.
“I just think it’s a part of the puzzle to us coming toward seeing an end to abortion,” Boblitt said. “And we definitely do feel that aborting a child because of a medical diagnosis is discriminatory.”
Abortion rights groups urged Kasich to veto the measure. They called the bill a desperate attempt to further restrict abortion in a state that has seen some 18 abortion restrictions enacted since Kasich took office in 2011. They also contend it will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
“This encourages women to withhold information from their doctors, and it prevents them from having open and honest conversations to be able to make the most informed decision,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “It is all the more clear that [lawmakers] will try anything to push abortion out of reach for women in the state.”
If Kasich signs the measure, the ACLU likely will sue to block it, arguing that it is an unconstitutional ban on a procedure that has been legal nationally since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Leesha Thrower, a communications professor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College who supports abortion rights, said she was outraged by the vote. As the mother of a 6-year-old with Down syndrome, she said, she felt lawmakers were simply using her daughter’s condition as an excuse to curb women’s reproductive freedom.
“If politicians were really concerned with Down syndrome, the things we’d be talking about are access to health care, independent living, opportunities for children when they graduate high school,” she said. “We’d be talking about companies that should be hiring children with Down syndrome.”
Alarm about abortion of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome spiked during the summer, after a widely viewed CBS News report showed that women in Iceland had all but stopped giving birth to babies with Down syndrome thanks to mandatory prenatal testing and liberal abortion laws.
Anti-abortion groups seized on the report as a cautionary tale for the United States.
While reliable statistics in the United States are scant, advocates for children with Down syndrome say a prenatal diagnosis very often leads to abortion. Approximately 6,000 babies are born annually with the disorder, according to the National Down Syndrome Society, and many of them go on to get married, live independently and hold down jobs.