House passes Down syndrome abortion ban after heated debate

Kate Klunk

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed two bills this week that could restrict access to abortion. House Bill 1500, known as the Down Syndrome Protection Act, prohibits abortions following a Down syndrome diagnosis, and House Bill 118, known as the Unborn Child Dignity Act, would require providers to offer the option for burial or cremation after a loss of a pregnancy. 

This marks the third time in four years that the House approved a Down syndrome abortion restriction, and the second year in a row it passed the Unborn Child Dignity Act. While the two bills may be agreed upon by the Senate, Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto them if they reach his desk. 

HB 1500 passed by a vote of 120-83 following more than an hour of debate on Tuesday. The lengthy floor debate included stories shared by Republicans of accomplishments achieved by people with Down syndrome. 

"This bill is for all of those individuals living with Down syndrome here in Pennsylvania and their friends, and the family members who support and love them," said state Rep. Kate Klunk, the bill's prime sponsor. "The lives of those with Down syndrome are lives worth living."

Democrats, meanwhile, argued that decisions related to ending a pregnancy are nuanced and difficult for everyone involved, and that this would undermine the doctor-patient relationship. State Rep. Danielle Otten of Chester County shared an impassioned story about her sister, who found out her child had severe disabilities and might not make it to term. Otten noted that her sister and sister’s husband “faced an absolutely impossible decision with no good answers,” but ultimately, decided to take the child to term after consulting with physicians.

"The decision to end a pregnancy is intimate and complex," said state Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat. "Like so many bills to block access to abortion health care, House Bill 1500 is an invasion into the exam room and the doctor-patient relationship."

The Unborn Child Dignity Act passed through the House by a vote of 118-83 on Wednesday after a prolonged and heated debate that also included personal stories of lost pregnancy. It was sponsored by state Rep. Frank Ryan, a Republican. 

Like the previous bill, HB 118 has been praised by pro-life orgnanizations while being chastised by pro-choice organizations. Specifically, the bill analysis states that it would require “a health care facility that possesses fetal remains to provide for the final disposition of those remains to be buried, in accordance with Pennsylvania Code, or cremated.”

Ryan said the bill’s intent stems from when he and his wife lost their unborn child years ago and were not given the option for a burial. He has defended the bill, stating that it is “not intended to be burdensome to health care facilities or the parents,” but to set a standard for facilities to dispose of a lost pregnancy. However, there is nothing in the law as it stands that prevents parents from deciding whether to bury or cremate the remains of a lost pregnancy if they choose to. 

While the bill doesn’t directly attempt to limit abortion access, Democrats argued that it would cause hesitation among pregnant people to seek care. 

“Many people wish to receive pregnancy care discreetly, and forcing them to have a burial for the remains will dissuade countless people from getting necessary care even if it’s medically advisable,” said state Rep. Rick Krajewski. “There is already a process for someone who wishes to seek a formal burial for their fetal remains. This bill goes further and removes any choice in the matter.” 

Before final passage, Ryan said, “The reality is this is a bill intended to be compassionate, to provide an option and to help the healing process for all those who have suffered through this horrific tragedy of a loss of a child.”