Denver’s Global Down Syndrome Foundation pulled into abortion debate

Author: Joey Bunch - March 6, 2018 - Updated: March 6, 2018

Down syndromeGlobal Down Syndrome President Michell Sie Whitten and her daughter Sophia. (Photo by Flor Blake, courtesy of The Denver Foundation)

As the criminalization of aborting fetuses likely to be born with Down syndrome gains momentum in Utah and other states, it was just a matter of time until the Global Down Syndrome Foundation was called in.

The research organization is a world leader on the Down syndrome, so it was natural for The Washington Post to reach out to Colorado for a story on the controversial legislation posted online Monday.

The president of the foundation focused on research, however, steered a middle course through the politics, as the Post reported:

Michelle Sie Whitten, president of the Denver-based Global Down Syndrome Foundation, said that while “it is a profound issue that needs discussion,” the group has no position on the bills, as there are just as many families that identify as antiabortion as abortion rights proponents who have and support children and adults with Down syndrome.

“The fact that there is legislation about it underscores the passion behind it,” said Whitten, who has a daughter with the condition.

Utah Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee is sponsoring a bill that would charge abortion doctors with a Class A misdemeanor if the mother’s sole reason is that the child is likely to be born with Down syndrome. That seems a narrow possibility, especially if a mother knew it would be illegal to claim just one reason.

A doctor, instead, would be required to give the expectant mother information about Down syndrome and support groups.

North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana have passed similar bills.

The Utah bill is awaiting its last vote on the Utah Senate calendar, before the session ends Thursday night. Even if it passes, the question seems far from settled; opponents, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, call it a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

You can read the bill by clicking here.

“Utah’s message to the world that we will not tolerate discrimination,” Lisonbee said at a hearing last week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder that occurs in 1 in 691 births, according to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation.

Colorado Republicans struck a blow against Down syndrome discrimination on a different level Monday, when the House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 96, which would replace the terms “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” in state statutes.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep, Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction and Beth Martinez Humenik of Thornton, passed the Senate last month on a 35-0 vote.

After a strong voice vote from the House floor Monday, it should be on its way to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk to become law after a recorded vote within the next few days.

Connor Long, who has Down syndrome and is affiliated with the Denver-based foundation, helped convince the legislature of the need, Willett said.

“The words we use matter and make a difference in how people feel,” Willett said on the House floor Monday, cirediting Long.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.