Court Affirms Immunity for Doctors in Prenatal Screening

Court Affirms Immunity for Doctors in Prenatal Screening

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah's Wrongful Life Act can prevent couples from suing doctors for misinterpreting prenatal genetic screenings, a divided Utah Supreme Court ruled.

The court upheld the constitutionality of the 1983 Utah law, which bans so-called "wrongful birth" or "wrongful life" lawsuits. The act shields physicians from suits that claim a woman would have chosen an abortion if given accurate test interpretations.

The court ruled 3-2 Tuesday against the parents of a 4-year-old Salt Lake City girl born with Down syndrome. Marie Wood and Terry Borman sued the University of Utah Medical Center in 1999 after their daughter was born, claiming faulty prenatal tests led them to believe the girl would not have chromosomal disorders.

The Supreme Court affirmed 3rd District Judge Homer Wilkinson's decision to throw out the lawsuit.

While the couple may not have opted for abortion, they never had the opportunity to make an informed decision, their attorney David Pearce argued.

Three of the justices rejected his arguments that the law was unconstitutional because it violated parents' due process rights.

"The statute does create a safe harbor for health care professionals who withhold information which could be used to make a determination on whether or not to abort a nonviable fetus," wrote Justice Michael J. Wilkins for the majority. "Nonetheless, we hold that this restriction on the ability to sue for damages does not place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman wishing to obtain an abortion."

Other claims, such as breach of contract lawsuits, could be pursed, the opinion said. But unlike the couple's wrongful birth lawsuit, which sought punitive damages, any breach of contract action could only recover any actual financial damages a couple might be able to prove.

In a 19-page dissent, Chief Justice Christine M. Durham said the majority of the court used the wrong standard in evaluating the constitutionality of the law.

"Here, the purpose of Utah's Wrongful Life Act is to discourage and burden a woman's choice to obtain an abortion; the act serves to interfere with the provision of accurate and correct information regarding the health of a fetus," Durham wrote. "It also improperly aims to reduce or eliminate abortion, which becomes obvious when examining its legislative history."

Justice Leonard H. Russon authored a separate dissent.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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