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In our opinion: Utah bill is a step toward greater cultural compassion for children with Down syndrome

Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would criminalize the act of aborting a Down syndrome fetus if that condition is the sole reason for terminating the pregnancy. The bill is a necessary attempt to strike a blow against a cultural stigma that relegates such people to second-class status despite numerous examples of Down syndrome adults living productive, fulfilling lives.

It also attempts to reverse a disturbing trend in the United States and elsewhere, where abortion is used to eliminate all people with the condition.

Rough estimates of Down syndrome abortions in the United States indicate between 67 and 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with the condition are aborted. Worldwide, rates are higher in Nordic countries, the U.K. and Iceland, where officials have boasted that close to 100 percent of such fetuses are terminated. This reveals a stark and pervasive cultural sentiment that Down syndrome children are less desirable than other people, and that many people lack knowledge about the condition and its effects.

That lack of education overlooks the immense societal and familial contributions of people with Down syndrome. It also perpetuates a repugnant form of discrimination.

The bill, HB205, comes with a footnote from the legislative counsel’s office saying it has “a high probability of being declared unconstitutional by a court.” Similar laws already have passed in Ohio, Indiana and North Dakota. Only in Indiana has a federal judge put a hold on the law.

Utah’s version comes in two parts. The second part requires physicians to present a balanced view of Down syndrome when providing a prenatal diagnosis. Patients must be referred to associations and experts who could provide a view of the advantages, as well as the challenges, of raising such a child. Too often, parents report feeling pressure by physicians to abort the fetus.

The sponsors, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, hope that, even if courts strike down the abortion prohibition, the requirement for physicians would remain.

With this singular shift in the way the diagnosis is presented — as an opportunity, not an obstacle — the percentage of aborted babies likely would decline.

The irony of this trend toward eliminating Down syndrome children is that science appears on the verge of breakthroughs that might allow doctors to cure the condition. Three years ago, Scientific American reported on the clinical trials of new drugs that might be able to solve the memory and learning inhibitors associated with the condition. Researchers reported surprising results in mice that were genetically engineered to exhibit symptoms similar to Down syndrome.

The ethical difference between preserving a life through a cure and eliminating a life ought to be clear.

Regardless of the law, what is needed is a greater level of compassion and a recognition that it is morally wrong to want to eliminate lives some might see as less than ideal. HB205 is a step in that direction.