When their Legislature returns in the fall, it will almost certainly pass HB 131 -- a bill that makes it a felony
to perform an abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Gov. John Kasich, who is competing for the GOP nomination for president, will certainly sign it.
North Dakota passed a similar law in 2013, and at least three other states are considering related bills this year. We've seen this pattern before. Anti-abortion groups are incrementalists. They identify a specific procedure or group that they think will garner sympathy from moderates and use it as a wedge to chip away
at the core protections of Roe v. Wade.
They've focused on third-trimester abortions, state funding for health care plans that provide abortion, hospital admitting privileges (in the guise of protecting the health of the mother, but really just trying to bury clinics in red tape), waiting periods, required consulting, and mandatory ultrasounds. When one tactic fails -- it turns out that lots of people object to the notion of a forced transvaginal ultrasound -- they abandon it and switch to another. Now it's Down syndrome.
Here are a few facts
: Down syndrome
happens at conception when an embryo develops an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, what's called a trisomy. There are lots of different kinds of trisomies (13, 18, etc.), each with a distinct range of medical outcomes, but trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, is by far the most common. Unlike many other conditions, genetic or otherwise, a trisomy is relatively easy to detect. Either there's an extra chromosome or there isn't (except in cases of mosaicism
The ability to detect a trisomy has opened up a new, and troubling, world of prenatal testing. Amniocentesis can reveal a firm diagnosis in the second trimester (and carries a slight risk of miscarriage), but there are new screening regimes that locate placental DNA in the mother's blood and assess for trisomy. These screenings
, though not 100% accurate, can be done much earlier.
All of this makes disability-selective abortion possible for Down syndrome in the way it currently isn't for other conditions. But technology is racing forward, and we need to figure out how to talk about these issues. The Ohio legislation's blanket ban isn't going to help at all, but even if it's enforced somehow, it could just lead women to lie about the reasons they aborted, or make Down syndrome code for poverty, when only poor people are forced to give birth after a diagnosis.
I'm the father of a boy with Down syndrome. I spend much of my life trying to make the world a better place for him. In doing so, I find common cause with liberals and conservatives from around the country, as we focus on issues like education, employment, and fighting stigma. Just last December, the otherwise do-nothing 113th Congress passed the ABLE Act
, a widely bipartisan bill that permits people with disabilities to save a little money for expenses such as education and housing without losing key federal benefits. It's a great bill and couldn't happen without a coalition and trust across the partisan divide.
The use of Down syndrome as "a new front in the abortion wars," as The New York Times put it
, threatens that trust.