A federal appeals court on Tuesday lifted a hold on an Ohio law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions based on a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome, a case considered nationally pivotal.
Judges of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly ruled to reverse a lower court’s stay on the 2017 law.
The court has moved rightward in recent years with six appointments by former President Donald Trump.
The majority said Planned Parenthood and several other abortion providers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union erred in basing their case on a woman’s “absolute right” to an abortion, because that right is neither absolute nor germane to the case.
“In this case, Ohio does not rely on its interest in protecting potential fetal life,” the ruling said.
Its interests in passing the law, instead, were to protect people with Down syndrome, to protect women from coerced abortions and to protect the medical community from unethical doctors, they wrote.
The ACLU had sued the state health department, state medical board and county prosecutors in 2018 on behalf of abortion providers.
The state argued the law does not ban abortions but instead regulates doctors.
The 2017 law had been put on hold while the legal challenge was decided. It is one of several Ohio abortion bills tied up in court.
During a rare hearing before the entire 16-judge panel in March 2020, Jessie Hill, an attorney for the ACLU of Ohio, argued that the Down syndrome law seeks to take “the ultimate decision” on abortion away from the mother.
Ohio Solicitor General Ben Flowers said the law seeks to prevent abortions that target and discriminate against people with Down syndrome.
Pro-life groups, including Ohio Right to Life, agreed, describing the law as an “anti-discrimination” measure during legislative debate.
Pro-abortion groups consider the law an illegal “reason ban.”
“I will call it what it is: the long arm of the state … forcefully reaching into a profoundly intimate conversation between doctor and patient and telling the patient to be silent about her medical history or worse, purposefully lie about it,” Judge Bernice Donald wrote in a dissent.
The law specifically prohibits physicians from performing an abortion if they’re aware that a diagnosis of Down syndrome, or the possibility of such a diagnosis, is influencing the mother’s decision.
Doctors who perform such abortions could face a fourth-degree felony charge, be stripped of their medical license, and be held liable for legal damages. The pregnant woman faces no criminal liability under the law.
Alexander Maugeri, an attorney for then-President Donald Trump’s Justice Department, told the judges during oral arguments that the “Ohio law serves an important purpose” and lets people with Down syndrome know they “have lives that are worth living.”
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