Ohio House passes bill criminalizing abortion in Down syndrome pregnancies

CINCINNATI -- When Chad Mayer was born in 1980, a nurse told his parents it would be best for everyone if they didn't take him home from the hospital. A child with Down syndrome, she said, would be better off in a long-term care facility than a family home -- and his parents would be better off pretending he had died.

Sue said she wouldn't hear it.

"Nobody's taking my child," she told the nurse. "We're taking him home."

According to a series of studies conducted between 1995 and 2011, other American women often have different feelings about learning that they are likely to give birth to a child with Down syndrome. Around 67 percent of the surveyed women who received a positive prenatal Down screening chose to end their pregnancies.

In Iceland, where prenatal screening is common and abortion is readily accessible, nearly 100 percent of women who receive the same positive test terminate their pregnancies.

Should they be allowed to do so?

A bill passed Wednesday by the Ohio House would make such abortions illegal and charge doctors who performed them with a fourth-degree felony. If convicted, they could face up to 18 months in prison and be fined $5,000.

According to proponents of the bill, choosing to end a pregnancy based on a Down syndrome diagnosis is a moral evil tantamount to eugenics.

According to opponents such as Planned Parenthood of Ohio, legislation like this uses a moral crusade as a smokescreen to limit women's access to health care.

"This bill attempts to use the disability community as a political wedge to chip away women's access to abortion," the organization tweeted Wednesday.

The intersection of disability advocacy -- the belief that every disabled person has the right to a healthy life free of social stigma -- and abortion advocacy -- the belief that every woman has the right to terminate an early-stage pregnancy she no longer wishes to carry to term -- is often messy.

A central question: Is it any more ethical to compel a woman to give birth to a child whose care she might not be equipped to handle than it is to terminate a pregnancy based on a prenatal diagnosis? 

A New York Times article from 1991 articulated the tension felt by many disabled people and their families when the subject comes up:

Having fought for the civil rights of people with physical and mental disabilities, many leaders of disabled groups say they are uncomfortable limiting the rights of anyone, including those of a woman to end a pregnancy. On the other hand, they have a visceral sense that if that same right to an abortion had been widely available years ago, they or the disabled children they have loved, raised and fought for might never have been born.

On Wednesday -- 26 years after the publication of that article and 37 years after the birth of her son, now a messenger clerk at a local law firm -- Sue Mayer said she believes wholeheartedly that children with Down syndrome are "a pleasure and a joy." 

"What turned out to be something that we thought was just going to change our lives and never be normal ending up a blessing. He has brightened our lives and brightened the lives of many people," she said. "It would be such a loss to not bring children into the world who are so good."

Jane Gerhardt, also the mother of a child with Down syndrome, said she opposed the bill because it created a division between Down syndrome and other disabilities, seemingly marking out a limited group that was entitled to protection and leaving others in the cold.

"If you've got a problem with abortions and Down syndrome, let's not pit Down syndrome against every other disability that's out there," she said. "Don't divide the disability community that way."

House Bill 214 will continue to the Ohio Senate. If passed there, it will need a signature from Gov. Kasich to become law.

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