Bill banning Down syndrome abortions passes in Ohio, heads to Kasich's desk

The GOP-led Ohio state Senate on Wednesday passed a ban on abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and Republican Gov. John Kasich has sent signals that he will soon sign the measure into law.

Lawmakers voted 20-12 in favor of the ban, which would prohibit doctors from performing an abortion if doctors know that it is being sought, "in whole or in part," to avoid a Down syndrome pregnancy.

Doctors who violate the ban would lose their medical license and face a fourth-degree felony charge, including up to a $5,000 fine and 18 months in prison. Mothers would not be punished by the law.

Three Republicans voted against the measure, which was opposed by all of the state Senate’s Democratic lawmakers.

The bill has also divided the disability community in Ohio, with some disability advocates testifying against the proposal because, they said, it prioritizes Down syndrome over other disabilities.

"This bill sends a very clear message, that some disabilities are more worthy of life than others and that one disability -- Down syndrome -- is the most worthy," Jane Gerhardt, a woman whose daughter suffers from Down syndrome, testified Tuesday, according to local reports.

The ACLU has characterized the bill as an unconstitutional effort to usurp well-established abortion rights.

A group of abortion-rights activists staged a silent protest in the Senate chamber after the Down syndrome bill’s approval, standing in a row wearing T-shirts that spelled out "Stop the Bans."

The legality of aborting fetuses with Down syndrome, a genetic abnormality that causes developmental delays and other serious medical problems, has recently been debated in other states. Indiana and North Dakota already have passed laws like the one that Ohio is advancing.

The Indiana measure, enacted in 2016, was blocked by a federal judge on constitutional grounds after a lawsuit by the ACLU. An appeal by state officials is pending.

The 2013 North Dakota law has not been challenged, so courts have not yet had the ability to rule on its constitutionality. The state’s sole abortion clinic, in Fargo, says the issue hasn’t arisen under its policy of not performing abortions after 16 weeks into a pregnancy.

The Ohio vote was a key policy victory for Ohio Right to Life, the state’s oldest and largest anti-abortion group.

“Both the House and the Senate sent a loud message that we are a society built on compassion, love, equality,” said president Mike Gonidakis. “We expect Governor Kasich will sign this legislation, as he said he would in 2015. Every Ohioan deserves the right to life, no matter how many chromosomes they have.”

Kasich’s spokesman declined to say what the governor would do. Kasich has said in recent weeks that he thought the measure seemed “appropriate,” but that he would review it when he received it.

Last December, Kasich vetoed the so-called "Heartbeat Bill," which would have banned abortions after a heartbeat is detected -- typically about six weeks into a pregnancy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.