A bill filed Thursday in the Arkansas legislature seeks to prevent women from having a drug-induced abortion administered by a doctor via telemedicine. Two Republican women, state Senator Missy Irvin of Mountain Home and state Representative Julie Mayberry of East End, sponsored the legislation requiring a doctor to be physically present when a woman takes Mifepristone (RU-486). The attending physician must also attempt to make a follow-up appointment.
Abortion through video teleconferencing is currently not available in Arkansas, but Representative Mayberry said that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be legislated as it is in 16 other states.
“We want to make sure that we stop it before it starts. It’s so much easier to prevent bad medicine than it is to stop it after it’s started,” said Mayberry.
However, Mayberry said she doesn’t believe telemedicine is necessarily bad for health care. She contends abortion warrants a separate set of rules.
“I think that it’s a special type of procedure. I’m not against all telemedicine, certainly it allows some of our rural areas to get some medical attention that might need it but this procedure you really need to have a doctor around for,” said Mayberry.
Arkansans at this time can only receive abortion services in Little Rock and Fayetteville.
A similar bill failed in 2013, but this year’s legislature has expanded Republican majorities that could give it more support. It already has over 50 co-sponsors.
The previous governor, term-limited Democrat Mike Beebe, used his veto powers in 2013 on legislation restricting abortions – including a ban on abortions at 12 weeks that has since been ruled unconstitutional. This year a Republican governor sits in office but Governor Hutchinson said he’d have to wait before explicitly endorsing Mayberry and Irvin’s bill.
“I haven’t read the legislation yet. Certainly I’m pro-life and so we’ll look at it very favorably but I want to look at that,” said Hutchinson.
Mayberry said she’s confident the governor will be a vocal advocate of the bill and others like it.
“He’s been part of the pro-life movement for many, many years and will be a speaker at the March for Life this weekend. Obviously it’s something he feels is important or he wouldn’t be our keynote,” said Mayberry.
One week after a planned pro-life rally at the Capitol, a pro-choice crowd is planning to gather in the same place. But unlike the case for pro-life supporters, Democratic Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong said there is not a unified political party advocating for the defeat of legislation limiting abortions.
“We as a caucus have not taken a firm position as a whole. It has been advised over the last six months that on certain issues we understand that certain members, due to the makeup of our state, will have to vote their district. And that’s what they should do.” Armstrong went on to say that he won’t be using his position to pressure members either way, “What they do is understandable and as their leader I fully respect that and have no qualms with that,” said Armstrong.
The state representative from North Little Rock has regularly voted to protect access to abortion but said even if Democrats did make a full-force stand their status in the minority would likely preclude a meaningful impact.
“In the Public Health committee where this bill may be taken up, it is not a committee where we really have a standing chance to defend or beat back this bill,” said Armstrong.
But Armstrong said it is possible a Democrat might make a point of defending reproductive rights as they exist now, "It's too early to call, you just never know. We've got some members of our caucus that are a bit more liberal than other, a little bit further left than others, and if that should come up in future caucus meetings we will address that as it comes," said Armstrong.
The bill, HB1076, will likely be followed by others designed to restrict abortion. The conservative Christian advocacy group Arkansas Family Council has already released half a dozen bills they hope to have carried during the legislative session.