Bill to outlaw abortion after 18 weeks passes Arkansas Senate; House must back change before it heads to governor

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL --6/28/17-- Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, talks Wednesday during a press conference at the state Capitol about the damage to the newly installed Ten Commandments monument. Early Wednesday a driver drove a vehicle into the newly constructed statue.

A bill that would ban abortions 18 weeks into a woman's pregnancy -- with an exception for medical emergencies or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest -- passed in the Arkansas Senate on Monday.

There was very little discussion as House Bill 1439 passed with a 28-6 vote.

"This bill actually has been well discussed," Sen. Jason Rapert, the Senate sponsor of HB1439, told the assembly.

"It's pretty simple in that we already have existing law that prohibits abortion at 20 weeks. This moves that to 18 weeks," Rapert said.

The bill originally would allow abortions only in medical emergencies to save the life of the mother. The Senate approved an amendment Thursday offered by Rapert that added exceptions for rape and incest.

The House, which must concur in the Senate amendment, referred the bill Monday afternoon to the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. The bill, as amended, must pass the full House before heading to Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desk.

Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor will sign the bill -- sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs -- as it is amended.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

HB1439 would bar doctors from performing an abortion more than 18 weeks after the first day of the woman's last period, or 16 weeks post-fertilization.

Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, took issue with the definition of medical emergency in the bill. The definition in HB1439 was different from that used in Rapert's "trigger bill," Senate Bill 149, which would ban abortions in Arkansas if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its Roe v. Wade precedent or if the U.S. Constitution is ever amended to allow states to prohibit the procedure.

A "medical emergency" in both bills are basically the same except HB1439 adds the allowance of an abortion when continuation of the pregnancy would result in the "irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Rapert said he believed the Bureau of Legislative Review was using the language that most closely mirrored the current 20-week ban.

"I would like the BLR to be even more consistent when we're dealing with these," Rapert said.

Family Council President Jerry Cox praised the bill's Senate passage, saying HB1439 "dials back the time at which a woman can get an abortion on demand."

"I think it's a really good bill, a good law. There's no doubt really about the person who would harm a child at 18 weeks," Cox said. "If you look the photographs of the children in the womb, it's unmistakable that those are babies. I think it's vital not only for the sake of unborn children, but also for the health of women because later in the pregnancy the woman gets an abortion, the more likely there are to be health risks. That's a proven fact."

Messages left for Rita Sklar, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, were not returned as of late Monday. Sklar had previously told an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter that she would take the state to court if the bill becomes law.

Calls for comment to Bettina Brownstein -- an attorney for Planned Parenthood and Little Rock Family Planning Services -- were not answered.

Two states, Mississippi and North Carolina, restrict abortion after 18 weeks post fertilization and similar legislation around the nation is being debated.

A federal judge in Mississippi in November struck down an attempt to ban abortions after 15 weeks. Another 15-week ban passed by the Louisiana Legislature won't be enforced unless Mississippi's ban is allowed to take effect.

Arkansas is one of 19 states that has successfully enacted bans on abortion past 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that supports abortion rights.

Cox said the proposed legislation makes Arkansas "one of the most responsible states when it comes to protecting the unborn and protecting the health and safety of women."

"Our belief is and has always been that a pregnant woman already has a child -- she just has to decide if she's going to carry the child to term or abort the child," Cox said. "This law obviously encourages women to carry their children to term. That said, they could still get an abortion for the first four-and-a-half months of pregnancy. That's a long time. They should be able to make up their mind in that length of time."

Most abortions at the state's three abortion clinics are performed before 16-18 weeks of pregnancy, according to statistics from the Arkansas Department of Health.

Of the 3,249 abortions the Health Department recorded in 2017, only 173 were performed at 16 weeks or later. That number dropped to 75 after 18 weeks.

A Section on 03/12/2019