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Changes in Arkansas GOP’s abortion view seen; rape, incest once exceptions to ban

by Ryan Tarinelli | July 5, 2022 at 7:14 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

WASHINGTON -- Rose Mimms remembers a time when passing a near-total abortion ban would have been out of the question for the Arkansas Legislature.

"We just didn't have the votes. It's all about the votes," said Mimms, a longtime anti-abortion advocate, recalling the early 1990s when she went to work for Arkansas Right to Life, a group that does not support exceptions for rape or incest in abortion policy.

The position, an abortion law without exceptions for rape or incest, is now a reality in Arkansas with the fall of Roe v. Wade and the implementation of the state's "trigger law," representing the culmination of decades of activism work by abortion opponents in Arkansas.

Arkansas' near-total ban on abortion also underscores a shift from the historical positions widely held by mainstream Republicans, said Claire McKinney, an assistant professor of government and gender, sexuality and women's studies at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

In the past, mainstream Republicans nationally supported legal abortion access in cases of rape, incest and life of the mother, said McKinney, who is writing a book on abortion politics in the U.S.

But in recent years, a growing number of Republicans openly support abortion policies that only include an exception for the life of the mother, she said. And, starting several years ago, there began to be more legislation that omitted carve-outs for rape or incest, she said.

"Ten years ago, you really could not find many prominent Republicans really saying that there should not be rape and incest exceptions," McKinney said.

One driving force behind the change is increased party polarization over the past two decades, where people go to the extreme ends of their party in order to distinguish themselves, she said.

"If you can proclaim that you're the more pro-life Republican because you think every life ought to be protected, even in cases of rape or incest, that places you at the kind of more pure end of the political spectrum," she said.

Mimms said there's been a shift in culture, and credited the anti-abortion movement with educating people and changing hearts and minds.

On her opposition to rape and incest exceptions, Mimms said abortion is an "act against the innocent child whose father committed a horrible crime."

Less than two weeks ago, Arkansas implemented a near-total ban on abortion following the fall of landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.

Hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge approved a certificate that put into place the state's "trigger law," which bans abortions in the state except to save the life of the mother. The law does not include exceptions for rape or incest.

Under the Arkansas measure, "performing or attempting to perform an abortion" is an unclassified felony with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine not to exceed $100,000.

Policies without exceptions for rape and incest could alienate the anti-abortion movement by going farther than where the American public stands on the issue, said Rebecca Kreitzer, an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina, pointing to public opinion polling.

That's been a historical concern, said Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the state's "trigger law" but said he would have preferred the two additional exceptions.

"I've always looked at life of the unborn as important to be protected, but those two additional exceptions of rape and incest seem to be important as reflecting the broad view of Americans. But time will tell as to whether that changes," he said in an interview on June 27 with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 79 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal when the pregnancy was caused by incest or rape.

The poll, which was conducted from April 24-28, had a sampling error margin of 3.5% and involved 1,004 adults in a national sample.

"These are very serious debates and issues, and people's thinking has moved on that," Hutchinson said. "But it's still a very divided [topic]. Even among the Southern states, you see some states with all three exceptions. You see others with fewer exceptions and that debate is going to continue."

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates say the fall of Roe and the state's Arkansas law will lead to dire consequences.

"This is going to be devastating," said Ali Taylor, co-founder and president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, an abortion fund. "Pregnancy is one of the biggest health events in the life of women and people who can get pregnant."

Arkansas' abortion law does not provide much guidance to medical professionals about under what circumstances an abortion would be allowed, she said. She said there are certain to be reports about doctors' being unclear over whether they are allowed to provide medical assistance to a pregnant person in jeopardy.

"It is just more and more clear every day that this is about returning us to a time when women and people who can get pregnant have very little control over their lives," she said.

Top Republicans in Arkansas roundly cheered the new Supreme Court ruling, slamming the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as a mistake and saying the ruling overturning it will leave the issues of abortion for the states to decide.

The state's near-total ban goes further than the positions staked out by other well-known Arkansas Republicans besides the governor, including U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton.

Both Cotton of Little Rock and Boozman of Rogers did not address the state's trigger law in separate written statements released the day the Supreme Court ruling came out.

"The Supreme Court has finally corrected this mistake and I highly commend the millions of Americans who toiled for years to achieve this great victory for unborn life and self-government," the junior senator from Arkansas said in his statement.

Boozman said in his written statement that the decision "is the culmination of decades of work to correct the tragic, deadly lie that unborn babies are expendable and undeserving of protection."

Boozman and Cotton did not make themselves available for an interview on Friday.


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