Not content with enacting the most restrictive abortion law in the country, Arkansas Republicans plan to press the legislative advantage their party hasn't enjoyed since Reconstruction by making it even more difficult for women to get abortions in the state.
The GOP-controlled Legislature on Wednesday overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of a bill banning nearly all abortions beginning in the 12th week of pregnancy, when a fetus' heartbeat can typically be detected through an abdominal ultrasound. That law wouldn't take effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends in a month or so, but the Legislature last week overrode a veto of a near-ban on abortions starting in the 20th week. That law took effect immediately.
State Sen. Jason Rapert, who was behind the 12-week ban, now wants to cut all public funding to Planned Parenthood. And the state's top anti-abortion advocacy group is urging lawmakers to ban providers from remotely administering the abortion pill via a video hookup — a practice they've derided as "webcam abortions."
The moves mark a major shift in a state already considered to have some of the most tightest restrictions on abortion in the nation, and they're worrying Democrats who say the newly Republican-controlled legislative majority is obsessing over abortion at the expense of issues such as education, health care and economic development.
Knowing the Legislature needed only a simple majority in each chamber to override his vetoes, Beebe nonetheless rejected both bans and said they clearly contradict the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and the state will end up wasting money having to defend the laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already said it will sue to block the 12-week restriction from taking effect, and courts are already weighing the legality of similar 20-week bans passed in other states, which are based on a theory rejected by most experts that a fetus can feel pain by then. On Wednesday, a federal judge deemed Idaho's 20-week ban unconstitutional.
"I was hoping we were finished with what I think is, intended or not, an attack on women," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock who has been an outspoken critic of the new abortion restrictions.
Rapert is now calling for the state to prohibit any state or federal funds from going toward any entity that performs abortions. It's a measure that's aimed at cutting off public funding to Planned Parenthood, which doesn't perform surgical abortions in Arkansas but distributes the abortion pill at two facilities in the state. Arkansas' only clinic that performs surgical abortions is in Little Rock.
The proposal would cut off money Planned Parenthood receives from the state for non-abortion programs, including federal grants disbursed by the state to the group for education programs in Little Rock schools on sexually transmitted diseases.
"I'm glad for them to do education and do those sorts of things, but I do not like them utilizing funds, indirectly even, to support their efforts with abortion in our state," Rapert, a Republican from Conway, said Thursday.
Planned Parenthood officials vowed to fight the legislation.
"For many Arkansas women we care for, we are the only health care provider they rely on every year for affordable care including well woman exams, lifesaving cancer screenings, contraception, and STD prevention," said Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "Planned Parenthood will fight this dangerous bill just as we fought Senator Rapert's abortion ban - politics should never come between a woman and her medical care."
Republicans, who in January took control of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years, have benefited over the past two elections from President Barack Obama's unpopularity in the state. The abortion laws Republicans have already pushed through are more restrictive than any adopted during the 10½ years that Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, a vocal abortion opponent and Baptist minister, was in office.
Rapert won re-election last year after defeating a Democratic lawmaker who chaired the House committee that rejected several anti-abortion measures in the 2011 session.
"For years in the state of Arkansas, these types of bills have been filed but have never been able to see the light of day because they were killed in committee who were not pro-life," Rapert said. "That's why you see these bills making it today."
Rapert's 12-week ban goes beyond the restrictions Arkansas Right to Life, the state's chief anti-abortion group, said it would push for during this year's legislative session. The group has already seen two of its three main agenda items — the 20-week prohibition and legislation banning most abortion coverage in the insurance exchange — become law.
The group didn't endorse Rapert's 12-week ban but didn't oppose the measure either, Executive Director Rose Mimms said.
"We are incrementalists. That's our strategy," Mimms said. "We try to make inroads where we can. We would love for the heartbeat to be able to be held constitutional."
Mimms said the next step for the group is a measure that would ban the distribution of the abortion pill using telemedicine. Planned Parenthood has said it has no plans to do so in Arkansas, although the idea has been tried in other states to help women in rural areas where abortions aren't readily available.
Republican Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View said she's working on wording of the proposed ban and expected to finalize it before the Monday deadline to file legislation.
Beebe, who signed the abortion coverage ban into law this year and has backed other limits on the procedure in the past, repeated his concerns Thursday about the costs of defending the new abortion laws.
"My concern going forward is that they're unconstitutional," Beebe told reporters Thursday. "You know, you put your hand on the Bible and you're supposed to swear to uphold the constitution. It should mean something."