SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of Utah lawmakers pushed forward a bill that would bar doctors from performing abortions sought because the fetus has Down syndrome.
The House Judiciary committee voted Thursday night to send the measure to a vote on the House floor despite concerns from some lawmakers that the proposal is likely unconstitutional and will leave the state facing a costly legal challenge.
Legislators supporting the measure, including bill sponsor Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, contend abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome are “a eugenic-like eradication” of an entire class of people.
The measure would make it a misdemeanor for a doctor to perform an abortion knowing that the pregnant woman is seeking it because of a diagnosis or suspicion that the fetus has Down syndrome. The genetic abnormality can cause developmental delays and medical conditions such as respiratory and hearing problems and heart defects.
Doctors could face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine under the proposal, but women seeking such abortions would not be charged.
The House Judiciary committee’s vote in favor of the measure followed an emotional, two-hour hearing Thursday night where people with Down syndrome and other disabilities and the parents of such children spoke for and against the measure.
Kristy Nielsen, with the anti-abortion group Pro-Life Utah, said people with Down syndrome are endangered like animals such as peregrine falcons and Gunnison sage grouse, but the animals have government protections that the people don’t.
Nielsen said it was ironic that Utah protects animals and plants but won’t step in “when a targeted people group is in danger of extinction.”
Opponents argued it inserts the government into an emotional, personal decision between women, families and their doctors.
Dawn Nunn, the mother of an adult son with a disability, said she was happy to take on the challenge of raising him and her two other children, but said, “It’s been a very hard road for us.”
“I cannot do this again,” she told legislators through tears. “I did it. I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life, but I can’t do it again.”
She said that if she became pregnant, “I would take such drastic measures and be so desperate that I may take my own life.”
It’s unclear how legislative leaders stand on the proposal and how it will fare before legislators wrap up their session in early March, but many in the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert have repeatedly stated their opposition to abortion in the past.
A handful of states have passed similar laws or are considering adopting them this year.
However, lawyers for the Utah Legislature noted that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortions and its rulings since leave “a high probability” that the proposal violates a woman’s right to an abortion.
Several states are facing court challenges for similar laws, including one in Indiana that a federal judge blocked. The state is appealing that ruling.