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HB166: Headed for Herbert's Desk



It was a miraculous scientific breakthrough: Only a relatively short time ago, science discovered the double helix of DNA. Understanding those little strands that create our very existence has revolutionized medicine, allowed scientists to reprogram the genes to eliminate some diseases, and launched glimpses of how the future might look once science has mastered that realm. DNA has solved crimes, allowed successful matching of transplant donors and recipients, brought prenatal testing for in utero abnormalities, provided Webster with the word "clone," and opened the Pandora's Box of related moral questions.

Chromosomes are great and everyone is supposed to get their 23 pairs. That's the recipe for a complete human being. But too much of a good thing ruins the mix. The tragic extra copy—or partial copy—of Chromosome 21 is a troubling abnormality, presenting questions of reason and belief for parents and lawmakers. It is the cause of one of humanity's saddest congenital anomalies—Down Syndrome.

Some say that having a Down syndrome child has been the best thing in their lives, though most secretly wish that the presence of a lifelong child—one who requires constant care and can never fully function on its own—has been a lifetime curse. Down syndrome takes its toll on the entire family, creates long-term financial stresses, necessitates special education, and, in the most extreme cases, requires lifetime institutionalization. While parents might feel a unique usefulness in caring for a child for an entire lifetime, most merely resolve themselves to the fact that it's just the luck of the draw.

Fortunately, the prenatal tests that identify a DS fetus have become a standard option, and more than 67 percent of U.S. parents, when informed their child will be DS, elect to terminate the pregnancy. In Iceland, virtually 100 percent choose that option, and European countries range from the U.S. average, all the way to 98 percent in Denmark. Although the pro-life option is available, people are, by nature, selfish and practical. Lifelong-dependent children are emotionally taxing and economically burdensome. The prospect of having a lifelong dependent doesn't bring most prospective parents a warm and fuzzy feeling.

It's my understanding that there are some DS children who grow up to hold down jobs, raise families, and even learn complex skills. Sadly those able to become independent are an overwhelming minority.

While trying to present himself as the protector of our state, Gov. Gary Herbert finds himself in a real conundrum. Would he, should he, could he conscientiously sign House Bill 166, which would prevent a pregnant mother from basing her abortion on the discovery of Down syndrome? There's no question Herbert is an unabashed opponent of pro-choice. He has openly talked about the right of all humans to be born, noting that the Down syndrome babies are not alone, and asserting that "none of us is born perfect." He rationalizes that there's a broad spectrum of human imperfections and that Down syndrome is just one of many. Understandably, the strength of the pro-life movement is at the core of the issue. These people believe all abortions to be, simply, murders by a different name. That's not my belief, though I understand that the rights of the unborn are part of a very complex argument.

In nature, animal mothers have their own ways of dealing with damaged or abnormal babies. Mother dogs, for instance, will instinctively kill a congenitally defective pup. It seems so cruel, yet Mother Nature uses harsh solutions to prevent the corruption of the gene pool. It's a stretch, but similarly, the right not to bear genetically defective children should be the choice of parents, not lawmakers.

HB166 is supported in the House and the Senate, and indications are that Herbert will sign it. If he does, it will be yet one more attack on the hotly debated reproductive rights of parents. Several other states, such as North Dakota, Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana, have advanced similar legislation. The enactment of such bills has brought immediate challenges in the courts, but, to date, there have been no Supreme Court decisions. Understanding that Utah's bill will lead to a legal quagmire, HB166 contains a provision that would not allow the state to implement the law unless the Supreme Court has ruled that a similar policy in another state is constitutional—something that would ensure taxpayers would not be on the hook for a costly legal crusade down a dead-end road.

Regardless of whether Herbert signs HB166, its overall impact is far reaching. This bill is a bold-faced attempt to thwart the rights of parents to make choices concerning their future, and it's yet one more example of how the state can, with the stroke of a pen, impose the will of the few upon the many.

The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net