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Ohio may soon ban abortions on fetuses with Down syndrome

Ohio's new abortion law will stop women from obtaining abortions if their doctor knows or thinks the fetus has Down syndrome. Only one other state, North Dakota, has a similar law.

by Carter Sherman
Dec 14 2017, 7:45pm

Ohio women may soon have to prove to their doctors that they’re not getting abortions for what lawmakers say are the wrong reasons.

On Wednesday, the Ohio state Senate voted in favor of a measure that would block doctors from ending the pregnancy of any woman they think or know wants an abortion because her fetus may have Down syndrome. The measure, which passed Ohio’s House last month, is now headed to Republican Gov. John Kasich, an abortion opponent who has already signed several anti-abortion restrictions into law.

But abortion restrictions like this bill, so-called “reason bans” that aim to ban abortion based on a woman’s motive for having one, are far from new.

Limiting abortion on the basis of genetic anomaly is uncommon; right now, North Dakota is the only state that has a law in effect banning abortion on the basis of genetic abnormality, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion policy. Louisiana and Indiana also sought to ban abortions linked to genetic abnormalities, but those laws were ultimately blocked from taking effect.

Because testing for genetic problems can occur as early as nine weeks into a pregnancy, anti-abortion lawmakers may be using proposed restrictions like Ohio’s to chip away at women’s access to abortion.

"The life of every child is precious, regardless of disability. Every child, no matter the circumstance, has the right to life," Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose said in a statement when he introduced the legislation. "This legislation will protect the lives of unborn children with disabilities, valuing them as equal members of society."

However, seven states do have laws that prohibit “sex-selective abortions,” when a couple tries to abort a fetus because it’s not their preferred gender, though there’s little evidence that this practice actually occurs in the United States. Even so, Arkansas in March passed a sex-selective abortion law, set to take effect in January, that mandates that doctors demand the medical histories of Arkansas women seeking abortion.

Arizona also bans “race-selective abortions,” which is when parents end a pregnancy because the fetus isn’t the race they want. But when asked how common this phenomenon is in the United States, the Guttmacher Institute’s senior state issues manager Elizabeth Nash said she hadn’t seen any evidence to even support its existence.

“I can’t even imagine how anyone would have a race-selection abortion,” Nash said. In reference to the restrictions, she said, “Those were, in part, ways to ban abortion — but also they were attempts to split the progressive community.”

The idea of terminating a fetus with a genetic anomaly is often a charged topic among families raising children with disabilities and disability rights groups. But such abortions do happen: People who find out their fetus has Down syndrome get an abortion between 67 percent and 85 percent of the time, researchers found in 2012, though they also noted the trend was on the decline.

Both the National Down Syndrome Congress and the National Down Syndrome Society, which advocate for people with Down syndrome, have refrained from taking a position on Ohio’s bill, according to NPR.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, meanwhile, publicly worried last year that “reason bans” could hurt patients’ ability to access quality healthcare.

In a 2016 statement, the group’s former president Mark DeFrancesco said, “These ‘reason bans’ represent gross interference in the patient-physician relationship, creating a system in which patients and physicians are forced to withhold information or outright lie in order to ensure access to care.”

For Nash, Ohio’s ban is likely an omen that similar anti-abortion restrictions are on the way.

“It seems like the environment is ripe for seeing more of them come down, and seeing more of them move in state legislatures,” she said, adding, “I am anticipating that we will see this trend continue, be it around sex selection or genetic anomaly selection or even issues we haven’t seen yet.”