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Bill Banning Down Syndrome Abortions Sparks Emotional Debate

Photograph by Twenty20

Parents who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis during prenatal testing face heavy decisions, often including whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. But that decision might soon no longer be an option in Ohio, where a controversial bill could make abortions based on a Down syndrome diagnosis illegal. On Wednesday, state lawmakers voted 20 to 12 to pass the measure, which is now awaiting Gov. John Kasich's signature.

The ban would make it a fourth-degree felony for doctors to perform an abortion when they know the abortion is to avoid a Down syndrome pregnancy "in whole or in part." Doctors would lose their licenses if convicted and face up to a $5,000 fine and 18 months in prison. Mothers would not be penalized.

Down syndrome, which is caused by a random error in cell production that leads to an extra copy of chromosome 21, can cause developmental delays and medical conditions like heart defects. Proponents of the bill argue that the number of chromosomes shouldn't determine one's right to life.

When Kelly Kuhns found out her youngest had Down syndrome, she grieved deeply but never considered ending the pregnancy.

"He's still a baby. He's still worthy of a life, just like everybody else," Kuhns told NPR.

News this year about Iceland's near eradication of Down syndrome births has also pushed fears about the heavy-handedness of genetic counseling. Since prenatal screenings were introduced in the country in the early 2000s, almost 100 percent of women who receive a positive test for Down syndrome decided to terminate their pregnancy.

"It's heartbreaking to me that we now have full societies that believe that kids like mine shouldn't exist. Those fears are often driven by old ways of thinking and misinformation," Callie, whose firstborn daughter has Down syndrome, told Mom.me's Gretchen Bossio in response to the reports on Iceland. "When we open our hearts, minds and societies to people with Down syndrome, we learn that they are capable of leading fulfilling and joyful lives."

Those against the bill though feel Down syndrome is just a pawn in restricting women's choice and disregards the fact that every woman's pregnancy is different. They're concerned that it could hinder honest conversations between doctors and patients, as well as limit women's access to all the necessary information about their bodies and options that might be available to them. Some families might not be able to afford medical costs for a child with Down syndrome, which the CDC says can be 12 to 13 times higher than the medical costs of a child without Down syndrome. Instead, opponents argue, the government shouldn't be involved in such personal decisions.

"This bill does nothing to improve the lives of people with disabilities, nor increase their access to health care or other services, nor does it educate a woman and her family about having a child with a disability," ACLU lobbyist Gary Daniels told ABC. "It only further restricts a woman's ability to make a decision about ending a pregnancy."

Indiana and North Dakota have already passed similar laws, though the Indiana bill from 2016 was blocked by a federal judge this September because it violated women's due process rights under the Constitution and goes against precedence set by the U.S. Supreme Court. An appeal is pending. The North Dakota bill from 2013 has not yet been challenged.

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