Fundamental rights

Bill that would ban abortions solely based on Down syndrome diagnosis heads to House floor

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News. Read it in its entirety here.

SALT LAKE CITY — Lisa Wilson, a woman with Downs syndrome, told lawmakers Wednesday she was “given a blessing” when she was born weighing 2 pounds, 3 ounces.

At the time, a doctor said she would “never do anything,” not even “walk, talk, read or write” and she would be “bald,” she said.

Wilson, now an adult, read from a letter in front of a panel of House lawmakers on Wednesday, dressed in a pink, with a full head of curly brown hair.

“God had other plans,” she said.

Wilson said she “loves everyone,” and loves “listening to music, swimming, reading … and doing things with my boyfriend, James.”

Scott G Winterton, Deseret NewsDr. Michelle Debbink speaks against HB166 during a House Judiciary Committee hearing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The bill would prohibit an abortion if the sole reason is because the fetus has or may have Down syndrome.

“I am so grateful that I was blessed that I might live so that I could give and receive joy,” Wilson said.

Wilson was one of a handful of public speakers urging lawmakers on the House Judiciary Standing Committee to support HB166, a bill that has history on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

It’s a reincarnation of a bill Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, sponsored last year, but didn’t survive the clock in time for a vote on the Senate floor after receiving support in the House.

HB166 is almost identical to last year’s bill. Had it passed, the measure would make performing an abortion for that sole reason a class A misdemeanor.

The failed legislation met pushback from women’s rights activists, as well as warnings from attorneys that there was a high probability a court would rule it’s unconstitutional.

But this year’s version includes a “trigger” provision, Lisonbee said, that protects it from an expensive lawsuit should a legal challenge arise. A contingency clause specifies the abortion ban provision would not take effect until a court ruled on its constitutionality.

A legal challenge is now before the U.S. Supreme Court over a similar ban in Indiana.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret NewsRep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, holds a memento of a family member who had Down syndrome during a discussion on HB166 before the House Judiciary Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The bill would prohibit an abortion if the sole reason is because the fetus has or may have Down syndrome.

Lisonbee compared abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome to “eugenics,” telling of how mothers have shared horror stories with her of doctors telling them when their unborn babies were diagnosed with Down syndrome: “You need to abort this child.”

“Social engineering is alive and well in Utah’s abortion clinics and doctor’s offices today as we see the eradication of babies with Down syndrome,” Lisonbee said.

But Lisonbee was met with pushback from opponents including Michelle Debbink, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist, who said it’s incorrect that the “general practice” is to recommend an abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. She also said the law is unfairly “aimed at women who have already made the decision to undergo an abortion.”

Representatives from Planned Parenthood also attended Wednesday’s committee meeting. Earlier in the day, Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, issued a statement expressing “compassion for any family faced with a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly” while also encouraging “parents to receive the information and support they need to make the decision that is best for them.”

“Instead of playing a divisive political game with the personal decisions of Utah families, the bill sponsors would be better public servants if they worked to ensure that Utahns have equitable access to health care and the disability services they need,” Galloway said.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret NewsWilliam Duncan, of the Sutherland Institute, listens as Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on HB166 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The bill would prohibit an abortion if the sole reason is because the fetus has or may have Down syndrome.

“Let’s be clear — HB166 is about restricting access to abortion,” she added. “No matter the reason, 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. Regardless of how one personally feels about abortion, it’s important that it remain a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider if and when she needs it.”

But to Utah mother Amber Merkley, “this bill isn’t even about abortion,” she said. Instead, she said it’s more about the way “people see my son.”

Merkley’s 4-year-old son, Finn, climbed onto the chair next to her as she testified in front of lawmakers. She said when he was diagnosed with Down syndrome while he was 14 weeks in her belly, she was terrified.

Since he was born, life “isn’t all rainbows and butterflies,” she said, “but you know what, there are plenty of rainbows and butterflies along the way.”

“There is a beautiful richness in our lives that wouldn’t be there without Down syndrome,” she said.

But Lauren Simpson, policy fellow with the Alliance for a Better Utah, spoke against the bill, saying its only purpose is to “send a message” that it’s “only a matter of time” before the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade and Utah will begin to further restrict when a woman is allowed to get an abortion.

“This would be a mistake,” Simpson said.

If the Utah Legislature is serious about preventing abortions, Simpson said lawmakers should pass laws implementing comprehensive sex education, expanding access to contraception, and enact “pro-family” policies like paid maternity leave and affordable childcare.

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News. Read it in its entirety here.

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