Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Friday signed a certificate implementing a 2019 law that bans abortions in Arkansas except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion across the country.
At a news conference at her Little Rock office, the Republican attorney general certified that the nation's high court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling in accordance with Act 180 of 2019.
"I am proud to announce as chief legal officer of the State of Arkansas that the United States Supreme Court has in fact overruled Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, thereby restoring to the state of Arkansas the authority to prohibit abortions," an emotional Rutledge said with Republican Gov. Asa Hutchison and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, at her side.
"This overturns the legal precedent that federal district courts and courts of appeal across the country has used to strike down pro-life laws like Arkansas'," Rutledge said. "This decision puts our pro-life laws in place and allows Arkansas to ban abortion with the only exception to save the life of the mother."
While anti-abortion advocates cheered Friday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling and Rutledge's action, abortion rights supporters were in despair.
An official for the Planned Parenthood Great Plains said health care workers at an Arkansas clinic were crying about having to tell women they were no longer providing abortions.
Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said Friday that "With Roe overruled, and the attorney general having now certified that Arkansas's 2019 trigger ban is now in effect, anti-abortion politicians have finally succeeded in their long drive to ban abortion in Arkansas.
"This will have an immediate and life-altering effect on all Arkansans -- especially people of color, immigrants, people who live in rural areas, young people and people with low incomes -- who already shoulder the brunt of inaccessibility," she warned in a news release.
According to the state Department of Health, there were 3,133 abortions in Arkansas in 2021, compared with 4,033 in 2011 and 5,924 in 2001.
The GOP-dominated Legislature and Hutchinson enacted Act 180 -- sponsored by state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway -- in the 2019 regular session.
Act 180 bars a person from purposely performing or attempting to perform an abortion except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency. Performing or attempting to perform an abortion is an unclassified felony with a fine not to exceed $100,000 or imprisonment not to exceed 10 years or both under Act 180.
The act states that it does not authorize the charging or conviction of a woman with any criminal offense in the death of her own unborn child.
At the news conference in the attorney general's office, Hutchinson said he doesn't plan to ask the Legislature in a special session to change Act 180 to provide exemptions to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest.
Act 180 of 2019 "is the will of the Legislature," he said. "They have expressed that. That's the public policy of the Arkansas. The certification is what it is in terms of the exceptions for the life of the mother.
"I don't see any additional action on that," Hutchinson said. "The people have spoken on that through their elected representatives and that is the law of the land in this state."
Hutchinson said the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade "is a turning point for our nation."
"As governor, I'm gratified by the court's ruling because the people of Arkansas have declared the public policy of this state is to protect the life of the unborn," Hutchinson said.
Based on Rutledge's certification, the governor said he directed the state Department of Health to enforce the law and conduct the necessary inspections and notifications to assure that any abortion provider is in compliance with the law and understands its potential penalties.
In a letter dated Friday to interim Department of Health Secretary Renee Mallory, Hutchinson said he directed the Health Department to issue notices to administrators of abortion providers to inform them of the high court's ruling, Rutledge's certification and "the requirement to comply with the law, which does include criminal penalties."
Asked about the governor's comments that he is directing the Health Department to update its protocols, Health Department Director Jennifer Dillaha said later that, "We'll have to work with our legal [team] to understand what all the ramifications are."
Whether the state Medical Board will need to update its rules for doctors is also a "legal question," she said.
At the news conference, Hutchinson said "we need we as a state and as a nation to continue to support women who have unwanted pregnancies, and for some they see abortion as the only solution."
The Legislature provided $1 million to pregnancy resource centers across the state in the fiscal year starting July 1 and enacted the Every Mom Matters Act -- Act 90 of 2021 -- that will allow pregnant women to call a hotline to get information and assistance, he said.
REACTION IN STATE
Groups on both sides of the abortion issue spoke out on the Supreme Court ruling.
House Democratic leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said Friday that Arkansas girls and women have lost the freedom to make intimate and personal choices regarding their own bodies that have profound effects on their families, personal dignity and autonomy based on the 2019 trigger law passed by the Arkansas Legislature.
"Even more disturbing, this new trigger law goes to the extreme of even outlawing abortions where girls and women have been victimized through rape and incest," she said.
"Arkansas legislators could choose to act and ensure our state protects our women and families, but sadly, extremists too often drive this difficult conversation," McCullough said. "Given today's ruling the practical effect of this decision in Arkansas will re-victimize girls as young as 9, and all survivors of rape or incest, by forcing them to carry to term pregnancies that resulted from a violent crime. Legislators and Governor Hutchinson can still act to rectify this wrong and must."
At a news conference at the state Capitol on Friday morning, Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council, said he believes that a majority of the Legislature doesn't support exceptions to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest.
"Rape and incest are absolutely horrible, deplorable acts, and we need to punish those who rape or commit incest to the fullest extent of the law," he said. "Women who are victims of rape or incest need to have all the compassion that we can provide."
Cox said "people act as if somehow doing an abortion for a person who is a victim of rape or incest is going to erase all that hurt, and I wish we could erase the trauma of rape or incest.
"But the abortion doesn't do that," he said. "In fact, everything that we read about and hear people talk about, abortion brings its own set of trauma and difficulty for the woman. ..."
Planned Parenthood Great Plains paused all abortion services in Arkansas on Friday.
News of the Supreme Court ruling drove health care workers at an Arkansas clinic to tears Friday over having to tell patients the clinic was no longer providing abortions, said Dr. Iman Alsaden, medical director for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which manages clinics in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
"Our staff is dealing with a lot of emotions from a lot of different patients when they are calling them to say 'we can't see you in Arkansas today or next week,'" Alsaden said during a Friday news conference.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling left Arkansans seeking abortions with limited options, according to Emily Wales, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
"Those patients now must figure out their next steps, whether that's fleeing their home states and communities for care, attempting to terminate their pregnancies without medical support or continuing pregnancies against their will," Wales said.
Kansas is the only state within the region overseen by Planned Parenthood Great Plains that is still offering abortions. Providers there are already struggling to meet the demand for in-state patients, Wales said. Four facilities in Kansas are offering abortion services – two in Wichita and two in the Kansas City area.
"We anticipate that we will have more patients than we can serve who need the care we provide," Wales said.
Planned Parenthood Great Plains clinics will continue providing sexual and reproductive care, according to Wales.
Lori Williams, clinical director for Little Rock Family Planning Services, said her clinic was not prepared to issue a public statement on Friday. The Little Rock clinic lists medication and surgical abortion options on its website.
A spokesperson for CHOICES -- Memphis Center for Reproductive Health couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
The clinic provides abortion services to eastern and Central Arkansas, according to the center's website. A state ban in Tennessee was designed to take effect after the overturn of Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group.
LAWMAKERS WEIGH IN
In interviews, three members of the state's all-Republican congressional delegation in Washington praised Friday's Supreme Court ruling.
"We celebrate the decision today for simply saying that there's not a constitutional right to abortion and that that's now left up to the elected representatives," said U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock.
"If you don't have life, you don't get to pursue any other freedoms, so I think it is the number one freedom that every person should be afforded, and I think the Supreme Court fixed a grave error," said U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro said anti-abortion activists had worked for decades to overturn Roe.
"[It] does represent the culmination of -- for many -- their life's work," he added.
Hutchinson emphasized that the high court's ruling doesn't put at risk of access to contraceptives or "other issues that are tangentially related."
Act 180 of 2019 states that it does prohibit the sale, use, prescription or administration of a contraceptive measure, drug or chemical, if the contraceptive measure, drug or chemical is administered before the time when a pregnancy could be determined through conventional medical testing and, if the contraceptive measure, drug or chemical is sold, used, prescribed or administered in accordance with manufacturer instructions.
On Friday, Rapert said, "It was my honor and privilege to sponsor Act 180 of 2019, the abortion trigger ban that was triggered upon the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"This is a great day for our nation as future generations of Americans will be given a greater chance at realizing their own lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness by being born in the greatest country the world has known," he said in a news release.
Cox thanked state lawmakers, Hutchinson and Rutledge for their work to make Arkansas the top pro-life state in the nation and enacting Act 180 of 2019.
"Thankfully, that good law is now enforceable in the state of Arkansas, and we are grateful for it," he said.
While "we've now mostly succeeded at making abortion illegal in Arkansas, the next thing that we need to do is find a way to make abortion irrelevant and by that, I mean we need to find ways to help women with unplanned pregnancies, women who feel like they have no other choice but maybe go get an abortion," Cox said.
He said the network of about 50 pregnancy help organizations that help girls and women with unplanned pregnancies across the state need to be strengthened.
In November, the Americans United for Life group ranked Arkansas as the most pro-life state in the nation for the second conservative year. The group said Arkansas earned its first-place ranking after enacting 16 "life-affirming" laws over the course of the 2021 regular session. Arkansas is joined by Louisiana, Arizona, Oklahoma and Indiana in the top five.
At this point, Cox said he does not expect the Family Council to push for legislation that might restrict a woman's ability to go to another state to get an abortion.
"That said, we don't know exactly how our laws are going to play out until they are actually enforced, and so if there are flaws in the law, misses in the law, then the Legislature may have to come back and try to correct that later on," he said. "But for now, I believe our laws are very strong and I believe are very adequate to do everything that needs to be done."
Asked whether the state Legislature should consider putting restrictions in Arkansas on women seeking abortions in other states, Rutledge said, "I think today that we need to focus on this incredible victory and historic moment and the law that we have passed in Arkansas.
Rutledge said she encouraged anyone to talk with legislators and her about potential policy changes in the future.
Asked about the potential for other abortion restrictions, Shepherd said Arkansas is the most pro-life state in the nation based on the Legislature's actions in previous sessions.
"As far as I am concerned, the law is settled on this point," he said. "We vigorously debated these issues and that's what allowed us to be prepared in the event that a decision such as this were handed down from the Supreme Court."
Shepherd said he has not been part of discussions on other abortion bills.
"Quite honestly, today I am thankful for the fact that the first time in my lifetime unborn children in the state of Arkansas are protected, and for the first time in my lifetime the decision of abortion is returned to the people's elected representatives," he said.
State Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said Friday that the medical privacy, decision-making and very lives of women have been breached by what amounts to an attack on women for the sake of political power-mongering and the unfortunate cheapening of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This ruling destroys the promise of equal protection by waiving the banner of state's rights over the rights of women to choose and to live," she said in a news release issued through the state Democratic Party.
Information for this story was contributed by Stephen Simpson, Will Langhorne, Andy Davis and Ryan Tarinelli of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.