Noem's bill banning Down syndrome abortions gains support


PIERRE (AP) – A South Dakota House committee on Wednesday unanimously approved Gov. Kristi Noem's proposal to ban abortions when testing indicates a fetus may have Down syndrome, paving the way for it to sail through the Republican-dominated House.

The governor's office cast the bill as a way to protect people with Down syndrome but also part of a larger effort to eliminate legal abortions altogether. Proponents pointed to European countries such as Iceland where Down syndrome diagnoses lead to abortion at least 90 percent of the time. But abortions motivated by abnormalities with the fetus in South Dakota are rare. Over 97% of patients who had an abortion had no knowledge of abnormalities with the fetus during 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.

Advocates for abortion rights said the bill is part of a political effort to erode access to “sexual and reproductive health care” for patients who already have limited access to abortions. However, Dale Bartscher, who directs South Dakota Right to Life, described the bill as keeping with "a long-standing tradition of upholding a culture of life” in the state.

Similar laws passed in other states have faced legal challenges, but a federal judge last year upheld one such law in Tennessee.

The committee meeting drew emotional and charged testimony from people with Down syndrome and their families, who described the contributions they make to their communities.

“I hope I have helped many have a wonderful life,” said Katie Shaw, a 35-year-old woman with Down syndrome from Indianapolis.

After proponents of the ban vilified abortions motivated by a Down syndrome diagnosis as “eugenics," the entire House committee, including two Democrats, pushed the bill to the full House. Because it received unanimous approval, it could breeze through the House without debate.

Two other bills making their way through the Legislature this year also appear to have widespread support in the Republican-dominated Capitol, but have been decried by abortion-rights advocates and medical groups. One proposal would add more severe penalties to any medical provider that does not provide medical care to babies born after botched abortions, as well as mandate reporting of such situations. It has passed the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, the House committee approved a bill that would require abortion clinics to give women who receive a two-dose abortion drug a statement telling them to seek medical attention if they change their mind on the abortion before they take the second dose of the drug.

“The bills go against the recommendations of medical experts and are another example of lawmakers politicizing reproductive health care and inappropriately intruding upon the vital patient-physician relationship,” said Kristin Hayward, the manager of advocacy for Planned Parenthood Action Fund in South Dakota.

The state currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but the only clinic that regularly provides abortions in the state, Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls, does not perform them after the 13th week of pregnancy. That would be too early for the proposed laws to have much effect on how abortions currently happen. Few tests can determine whether a fetus has Down syndrome that early in a pregnancy.

Hayward said such restrictions, termed “reason bans” by abortion-rights advocates, still take away the right for patients to get a safe abortion.

“It’s legal for a woman to obtain an abortion and it should stay that way,” she said. “When these restrictions are put on, it endangers the lives of the women and patients who are seeking abortions in the state.”

Noem has defended the necessity of her bill, saying that some screenings for Down syndrome can be performed as early as 10 weeks into pregnancy.

“This legislation will protect preborn children that are diagnosed with Down syndrome from being discriminated against solely because God gave them an extra chromosome,” she said last month.

A group of about 70 medical workers from across the state wrote to lawmakers in opposition to Noem's bill, saying it would put physicians and patients in an adversarial relationship, places severe penalties on doctors and makes no exception for conditions that would be lethal to the fetus.

While the South Dakota Medical Association, the state's largest group representing doctors, did not oppose Noem's proposed ban, it opposed the other two bills as an infringement on the doctor-patient relationship.

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