PIERRE, South Dakota — A measure that would have banned aborting fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome was rejected by a South Dakota legislative committee Thursday, with lawmakers saying it could jeopardize the state's legal defense of abortion restrictions passed in previous years.
Lawmakers on either side of the issue joined to defeat the bill despite an emotional plea from its sponsor, Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, who talked about his love for his two sisters, Eva and Grace, who have the genetic disorder.
"I hope you can see what a treasure my sisters are and how much they can teach us about what is truly important in life," Latterell said. "We must stop killing children simply because they have Down syndrome before they even have a chance to shower us with their love, as Eva and Grace have with me."
The House and Human Services Committee voted 8-4 to scrap the measure after a vote to pass it ended in a 6-6 tie.
Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, said he reluctantly voted against the bill because its passage could complicate an ongoing legal challenge to other abortion restrictions passed in previous years. That lawsuit could eventually overturn the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, he said.
"This bill will save lives, but it's too risky in my estimation to compromise that legal progress that we've made," Hickey said. "We all agree with this bill, but there's a bigger battle."
Opponents said they believe the bill is an unconstitutional violation of a woman's right to abortion.
Under the measure, a doctor who performed or attempted an abortion sought because a fetus had been diagnosed with Down syndrome could have been charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. A woman seeking such an abortion could not have been penalized.
People with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder in which a person has an extra chromosome, can have varying degrees of physical or mental limitations.
Latterell said he believes the bill, had it passed, would not have been challenged in court. A similar provision passed in North Dakota a year ago is not being challenged, he said.
The South Dakota House passed a bill Wednesday that would ban abortions sought because of a fetus's gender, but lawmakers have not expressed worry that measure would interfere with existing court cases.
South Dakota law already requires women seeking abortions to wait at least three days after first seeing a doctor. A 2011 law also requires women to undergo counseling at pregnancy help centers, which discourage abortions, before they can terminate a pregnancy. The counseling requirement, imposed to determine whether a woman is being coerced into getting an abortion, is still being challenged in federal court, where a judge has temporarily blocked it from taking effect.
Jim Seward, legal counsel to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, did not testify Thursday, but he answered the committee's questions. He said before the Legislature passes such a bill, it should check how the bill might affect the existing legal battle and other laws already in effect.