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Federal judge reverses previous ruling preventing abortions based on Down syndrome diagnosis

A federal judge has blocked the portion of Missouri’s abortion law preventing the procedure based upon a diagnosis of Down syndrome, a reversal from his earlier ruling. 

In a supplemental order Friday, U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs left in place the safeguards in HB 126 prohibiting abortions on the basis of sex or race of a fetus. However, he reversed course on the prohibition of abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome for “non-viable fetuses,” citing potential further back-and-forth in courts. 

“The facts do support injunctive relief now … although the Down Syndrome condition in the population is quite rare, thus suggesting rather infrequent abortion requests,” Sachs said. He pointed to data filed by the plaintiffs, which includes the St. Louis Planned Parenthood, showing one in every 800 to 1,000 people have received such as diagnosis. 

Sachs also referenced information provided by the plaintiffs which estimated a doctor saw one to four cases a week with a report of a “genetic or structural anomaly” and Down syndrome being the “most common fetal aneuploidy.” 

In his order, Sachs noted he expected the very of issue of whether abortions based on a Down syndrome diagnosis could be banned to be played out in courts. 

“We are grateful the court has granted an expanded injunction against this unconstitutional abortion ban,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said. “Moreover, our patients are grateful.”

“My patients deserve access to high-quality abortion care, regardless of the reason they need that care and they deserve the space to make those decisions based on their values, life circumstances, support system, and faith, free of government scrutiny,” McNicholas said.

Sachs halted the full implementation of HB 126 last month — the controversial law which placed restrictions abortions after eight weeks — just before it was set to go into effect. And last week, he also blocked a partial stay that would have prevented abortions after 20 weeks. 

The state has appealed his ruling. 

Sachs had initially left in place provisions that blocked abortions based on race, sex, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome. He said there was no significant data to show whether “the inability to schedule ‘Down syndrome abortions’ would be likely to interfere with the abortion rights of real-life women.” 

Attorney General Eric Schmitt had applauded Sachs’ decision to allow that provision to remain in tact. 

“[A]s the father of a child with special needs, Attorney General Schmitt is particularly sensitive to suggestions that an unborn child who will have special needs is any lesser of a human being, and we’re glad that provisions relating to that issue were left in place in the judge’s ruling today,” Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the office, said last month.

In his order Friday, Sachs said, “Common understanding and judicial notice would conclude that a Down syndrome diagnosis (or even a strong suspicion based on testing) would often be received with dismay by a pregnant woman and any family members. If an abortion were sought thereafter, most of us, including an abortion provider, would suppose that the diagnosis was the principal cause of the request, and that a jury or licensing agency would have little trouble with the ‘sole cause’ requirement for a violation.” 

“In a society which in recent decades has advanced the rights of the most vulnerable, disabled individuals who are already born, this ruling perpetuates the cruel myth that some children are better off never being born,” Sam Lee, director of the anti-abortion Campaign Life Missouri group, said.  

HB 126 banned abortions after eight weeks except in the case of a medical emergency. It included “nestled” components — designed to withstand court challenges — with restrictions at 14, 18, and 20 weeks. It also would ban abortions outright should the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade be overturned. 

Sachs was appointed to the court by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

Missouri only has one facility able to provide abortion services which is embroiled in a legal battle with the state. The case is set to be heard by the Administrative Hearing Commission next month.