North Carolina lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill to make it illegal for physicians to perform abortions because of the fetus' race or a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
A physician would be subject to monetary damages if he or she performed an abortion despite being aware that the pregnant woman's decision to get the procedure was influenced by either of those two concerns.
A handful of states have passed similar laws regarding Down syndrome diagnoses and have been caught up in legal battles after their passage. Last month, a federal appeals court narrowly ruled to reverse two earlier decisions blocking enforcement of a 2017 Ohio law. A federal appeals court ruled in November that Tennessee could begin outlawing abortions because of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
North Carolina's House Health Committee approved the Republican-backed measure and sent it to the judiciary committee, where it is scheduled to be considered on Wednesday. If approved, it would then move to one more committee before making its way for a floor vote. A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposal.
“We do not want to be the kind of society that not only discriminates, but disposes of children because of the way they are created,” said state Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican who is a primary sponsor of House Bill 453. “North Carolina citizens do not want to be that kind of society either.”
Bill sponsors say procedures performed based on race or Down syndrome amount to “discriminatory eugenic abortion.” The legislature in 2013 passed a law prohibiting sex-selective abortions — those based upon whether the fetus is male or female.
State Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, believes the proposal threatens a woman’s right to an abortion and would create another unfair hurdle for them.
“I find this bill discriminatory against pregnant women,” Insko said. “I cannot imagine anything that is more threatening than to have someone take control of my body. I would much prefer that we push birth control.”
The measure advanced on Tuesday in about 45 minutes, with limited discussion or debate. Some members of the public seeking to voice their opposition were not given the opportunity to speak, though speakers from both sides of the debate were given equal time.
Julie Scott Emmons, a representative from the conservative N.C. Values Coalition, amplified the voices of parents who were happy with their decision to give birth to a child with Down syndrome and embraced the proposal.
“This bill is not a sham,” Emmons said. "It actually places a hedge of protection around an entire class of human beings who should not have to pass a genetic test to earn the right to be born.”
Down syndrome is a genetic abnormality that causes developmental delays and medical conditions such as heart defects and respiratory and hearing problems.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about one in every 700 babies in the United States — or about 6,000 a year — is born with the condition, which results from a chromosomal irregularity.
The North Carolina Obstetrical and Gynecological Society opposes the proposal, arguing that it should be left up to individuals, not the state government, to decide what to do with information from prenatal fetal diagnoses.
Dr. Jonas Swartz, an OB-GYN and faculty member at Duke University, told lawmakers he worries the bill could reduce patient trust in the medical community and make it harder for doctors to communicate with those seeking their expertise.
“I want to provide safe, non-judgmental and high-quality care," Swartz said. "This bill would make it harder to have open and honest conversations with my patients.”