LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' predominantly Republican Legislature is preparing to take up new abortion restrictions when lawmakers convene next month, even as the state's past efforts to restrict the procedure remain caught up in legal fights.
Two abortion measures have already been filed ahead of the session, while anti-abortion groups say they're talking with legislators about several other new restrictions. Abortion opponents said President Donald Trump's appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court offer them hope that any new restrictions the state enacts will be upheld.
"I don't think the changes at the Supreme Court level have encouraged us to try to pass more bills," said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. "What that has done is give us encouragement that many of these laws may indeed be upheld."
Arkansas has enacted some of the nation's strictest abortion laws since Republicans won control of the state Legislature in 2012, and many have been the subject of court battles. A federal appeals court on Thursday heard oral arguments over a judge's decision to block Arkansas from enforcing four restrictions, including a ban on a common second trimester procedure.
"We're fully committed and ready to challenge to fight for women's right to choose," said Bettina Brownstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.
Republican state Sen. Trent Garner filed the first two abortion proposals, including a measure prohibiting doctors from performing the procedure if they know the woman is seeking one solely because the fetus is diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The measure has an exception for the life or health of the mother or the fetus, and Garner said he planned to add exceptions for rape and incest.
"Being born different shouldn't be a death sentence," Garner said. "We should protect the most vulnerable in our society."
Only one other state, North Dakota, has a similar law in effect that prohibits abortions because of a genetic anomaly diagnosis. Similar laws in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio have been blocked by courts.
Garner's other proposal would require physicians and abortion facilities to report any complications from the procedure to the state health department within three business days.
The bills have drawn objections from abortion rights groups, who say they're prepared for more restrictions to be proposed.
"While we expect more (anti-abortion bills), we would hope the Arkansas legislature would understand that bills like this do not do anything to protect women's health," said Tamya Cox-Toure, regional director of public policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes.
Jerry Cox said his group is talking with lawmakers about several new bills as well, including a proposal to extend the waiting period for an abortion from 48 hours to 72 hours. Several other states, including neighboring Missouri, have similar waiting periods. Cox said another the group is discussing would put into law the state's decision to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood.
Arkansas Right to Life Executive Director Rose Mimms said her group is working on two bills for the session, only one of which deals directly with abortion. Mimms said the group wants to require facilities that provide the abortion pill also give women a toll-free number for an organization they can call if they want to seek an abortion "reversal."
Proponents of the idea argue doctors can give a woman the hormone progesterone to stop an abortion after she has taken the first of two medications needed to complete the abortion. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that there is no medically accepted evidence that a drug-induced abortion can be interrupted. Arkansas' law already requires facilities to inform patients about the procedure.
"We've done a lot in Arkansas, so I think what we've planned is plenty this session," Mimms said.
Mimms said her group is also working on legislation that would expand the "safe haven" law allowing people to anonymously surrender a newborn without fear of criminal prosecution. Mimms said the group wants the law to include fire stations that are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.