Politicians in Harrisburg are Using People With Down Syndrome

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 2050, a bill that attempts to restrict abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. They did so without holding a single public hearing, and the bill is now before the state Senate. I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome, and I can tell you what this bill truly is: an attack on a woman’s right to control her own reproductive care decisions in our commonwealth.

The bill would make it a felony to terminate a pregnancy based solely on a prenatal diagnosis that a fetus has Down syndrome. It copies legislative efforts in several other states that restrict abortion access and are now facing legal challenges over their constitutionality. It’s also an infuriating exploitation of people with Down syndrome as political pawns by Harrisburg politicians so eager to interfere with Pennsylvanians’ reproductive freedom.

There are a lot of misperceptions of what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. The reality is that never before have the opportunities been so great for people with cognitive disabilities, from employment opportunities to the level of acceptance in society. If this proposed legislation was truly about protecting the wellbeing of people with Down syndrome, then it would mandate more funding for genetic education and genetic counseling about the realities of having a child with Down syndrome.

Any parent with a child with Down syndrome will tell you their child is a blessing, and our son Lior has added so much to my family. Now 27, he attended a two-year program at Temple University for people with cognitive disabilities and works full-time while living in an independent living community. It’s critical that people understand the possibilities that exist for people with cognitive disabilities, including specially designed college programs and state and local services. Any new legislation should focus on widening access to such possibilities.

The Liebling family

It makes me angry that people with Down syndrome are being used as bargaining chips in Harrisburg to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her reproductive healthcare. This is purely a manipulative play by anti-abortion legislators, one that we need to fight not only in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but nationwide.

Not all people whose lives are touched by Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities agree that this bill is the way to advocate for people with those disabilities. Having Lior has brought immeasurable joy to my family, and I’m so glad he came into our lives. But that doesn’t mean parenthood is my – or Harrisburg politicians’ – decision to make for anyone else.

Take action! Tell your state senator to vote NO on House Bill 2050 by clicking this link. Women’s access to reproductive healthcare depends on it!

It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.