What Is Ohio's Down Syndrome Abortion Ban? It Could Stop Life-Saving Prenatal Testing
On Wednesday, Ohio's House of Representatives passed a bill seeking to ban abortion if the fetus might have Down syndrome. HB 214 must still pass the state Senate and obtain Gov. John Kasich's signature to become law, both of which are entirely possible, but it leaves unanswered questions about how it could affect moms, and how it would even be enforced.
The bill passed in the House by more than 30 votes, with Ohio Rep. Brigid Kelly in the minority.
"Abortion is legal in the United States," Kelly tells Bustle. "I think that women have every right to make the medical decisions that are appropriate for themselves and for their families."
One concern that the bill raises is that it could deter women from getting prenatal screening tests to ensure that they have a safe pregnancy in the first place. Banning abortions after a Down syndrome diagnosis could potentially lead to fewer women getting prenatal screening tests, which would in turn put the mother and the fetus in a life-threatening situation that could've been avoided.
Opponents of the Ohio bill also say it would hinder open conversations between pregnant women and their doctors, and do nothing to help those with Down syndrome in the state. "This bill will totally offend this relationship," Ohio Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes said, "not allowing honest discourse between a physician and patient." According to a 2012 study by the medical journal Prenatal Diagnosis, 50 to 85 percent of American women whose fetus has a Down syndrome diagnosis opt for an abortion, USA Today reported.
Another question is how the state would track women who receive a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome before seeking an abortion. Kelly tells Bustle her colleague introduced an amendment to HB214 on the House floor stating that no woman should have to disclose why she chose to have a particular medical procedure, but it was tabled. "There are still a few unknowns about practically how this would work," Kelly says.
Another major unknown is whether or not women who self-induce an abortion would be punished. The bill would, however, punish doctors who perform abortions after a Down syndrome diagnosis with up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine, along with the possibility of losing their medical license.
A similar law passed in Indiana that banned abortions over the fetus' race, sex, or disability diagnosis was struck down by a federal judge in September. Other states have also tried to pass laws prohibiting abortions in cases of genetic abnormalities, but all have been partially or fully enjoined in court. Illinois is currently the only state with this type of law on the books, and it only applies after a pregnancy is viable.
What's rare about the Ohio bill is that it focuses solely on Down syndrome and doesn't name any other genetic abnormalities. "Their right to life should be protected," Ohio Rep. Derek Merrin, who sponsored the bill, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Individuals with Down syndrome are truly treasures."
But those who oppose it say that distinction is dangerous. While debating the bill on the House floor, Kelly read a letter from a mother in her district who had a 20-year-old daughter with Down syndrome.
"Her concern was about creating a hierarchy of disabilities ... and about driving a wedge into the disability community," Kelly tells Bustle. She adds that the mother said: "It’s not up to us to judge other people and the choices that they make."
As this debate took place in Ohio, a very similar one was happening in Congress. On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing on a bill that would "prohibit abortion in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detectable." The so-called "heartbeat" bill would effectively ban abortion at six weeks, before most women even know they're pregnant.
Making essentially the same argument as Kelly did in her state, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the only woman invited to speak at the hearing, told Bustle previously: "It restricts the constitutionally protected right for women to make decisions about our own bodies, and similar state bills have already been struck down in the courts."
Though the future of the federal "heartbeat" bill is still up in the air, Ohio's abortion ban could pass the majority Republican Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Kasich, who has a history of supporting anti-abortion legislation. As has happened it other states, the constitutionality of the measure could then be challenged in court.