Fetal Abnormality Is The Next Frontier In Abortion Law

Laws proposed in several states could imprison doctors who provide an abortion because a fetus has a genetic abnormality.

Alexander Raths / Via shutterstock.com

Last year, anti-abortion advocates sought to ban sex-selective abortion. Now lawmakers in several states are trying a new but related tack: restricting abortion because of fetal abnormality. Sponsors of the bills argue that they’re necessary to prevent eugenics, while critics worry they tamper with doctor-patient confidentiality and even force women to give birth to children who can’t survive.

Members of the North Dakota House introduced such a bill last week — it would charge any doctor who performs an abortion for the reason of either the fetus’s sex or a genetic abnormality with a Class A misdemeanor, which can mean a year in prison. In Virginia, legislation introduced earlier this month would have barred Medicaid from covering abortions in the case of fetal abnormality — it was narrowly defeated in committee. And Indiana has introduced a bill that makes providing abortion in the case of fetal abnormality a Class C felony, a class punishable by up to eight years in prison.

“This chilling slide toward eugenics — specifically, eliminating persons with certain hereditary characteristics — must be confronted,” the legal team of Americans United for Life said in a statement to BuzzFeed Shift. AUL has produced model legislation to help legislators enact fetal-abnormality abortion bans. The group, whose model legislation was responsible for nearly a third of the abortion restrictions passed at the state level last year, says it has worked with Indiana lawmakers on their bill, and has also been in contact with state legislators in Colorado about the issue.

There are no nationwide studies on what percentage of women choose to abort after getting a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, one of the most commonly diagnosed fetal abnormalities; localized studies have put the rate as high as 92%, but in more anti-abortion areas of the country, it may be much lower.

Critics fear what the legislation could mean for women, families, and doctors. Renee Stromme of the North Dakota Women’s Network, who testified against the bill there, said she’d since heard from a woman whose fetal twins shared a blood supply, meaning the parents had to terminate one or let both die. The proposed bill would have forced her to lose both. And some genetic abnormalities, she notes, end up being fatal at or soon after birth. “These are very difficult and personal decisions the legislature is trying to make for families,” she says.

Stromme also says if the law does pass, doctors might be afraid of giving women full information about their pregnancies, for fear of prosecution. And she’s concerned the bill has a good chance of passing, especially since it’s been proposed along with five other North Dakota bills restricting abortion, meaning abortion-rights advocates’ energies will be divided among many campaigns.

Ayelet Waldman, a writer who had an abortion when she found out her fetus had Down syndrome, says legislators who seek to ban abortions for fetal abnormality are suffering from a failure of empathy. She says, “After I had my second-trimester abortion, I was in a support group for women who had undergone the experience, and I would say a third of the women in that room were pro-life.” Her message to anti-abortion lawmakers: “I have sat in a room with women like them who have made decisions like mine, and I know what they would do. And the vast majority would choose to terminate.”

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