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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: More legislative trickery

by John Brummett | November 27, 2022 at 1:40 a.m.

One of our feistier conservative Republican state legislators has put in a bill for the next session that seems to try to spite any Arkansas company that shows the temerity to expand health coverage for employees to include travel costs for abortions.

State Rep. Aaron Pilkington would make these employers pay--penalize them, essentially--by requiring of them a generous benefit for women employees having their babies.

This little gem of pre-filed legislation, HB1006 by Represenative Pilkington of Clarksville, proposes that companies with health plans paying for the travel of Arkansas women to permitting jurisdictions for abortions must also provide 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

The proposal seems targeted primarily on Walmart, which announced in August that it would extend health coverage for employees to include travel costs for abortions, though not all abortions. Walmart's policy applies only in cases of rape, incest, a health risk to the mother or a lack of fetal viability.

Pilkington basically says, "If you guys have enough money to pay for abortion travel, which I'm against, then you can afford to absorb 16 weeks of maternity leave, which I'm for. In the event you don't want to do both, then, fine, you can't do either."

A straightforward general policy of 16 weeks of maternity leave--that would be one thing, and splendid. But 16 weeks of maternity leave for a few, imposed as a penalty on the employer more than as benefit for employees ... that seems to represent not a politics of principle and policy, but of trickery and resentment.

The bill also seems unconstitutionally unequal among similarly situated women. It is one thing for company health plans to differ. But for a legislative body to tell only certain companies to extend a generous benefit only to a few is another thing.

And it all smacks of an unfunded mandate on private business, which conservatives once said they were against.

Pilkington convinces me in an email response that he genuinely believes extended maternity leave is a pro-life position by which more women would choose to give birth if assured of longer time off with job protection. He professes to believe some Arkansas companies will choose to offer the travel benefit and extend the maternity leave.

But he also seems to think he has the issue snookered.

That is a trick borrowed from Washington politics. You have two distinctly separate policies, each deserving consideration on its own merits. One is travel to other states for abortion access through employer-provided insurance. The other is maternity leave from jobs. But, rather than consider them separately, you combine them so that one issue leverages against the other.

The issue regarding Walmart is more nuanced than simple pro-life. Trying to punish Walmart for its policy with expensive maternity leave is not a pro-life position as much as it downplays Walmart's limited factors of rape, incest, a mother's health and the tragedy of medically doomed fetuses.

The abortion issue is fast on its way--if it's not there already--to being an issue not of abortion, but of exceptions to the ban.

As the self-professed most pro-life state in the country, Arkansas perhaps will be a rare place where banning abortion altogether will be such a popular position that it indeed will excuse rape and incest.

But we're going to have to vote on that, I'm pretty sure, either in the Legislature, or, most likely, as a citizen-initiated ballot issue, which--remember--can still be passed in Arkansas by a simple majority vote of the people. The Legislature's attempt to snooker us on that failed in the recent election.

By the way, I could not conclude this column on what I see as Pilkington's seemingly punitive trickery without mentioning another one of his bills, HB1010, which strikes me as nothing but good. It would extend Medicaid coverage for poor mothers from 60 days post-birth to a year.

Arkansas has one of the nation's highest rates of maternal poverty and maternal mortality, with many of those deaths occurring between the 60th postpartum day and a year of the birth.

Pilkington tells me he has more bills coming on women's health and pre-natal and post-natal care because he believes it's pro-life to make the state a healthier place for pregnant women and babies.

If nothing else, Pilkington is stirring a debate that a raging pro-life state like Arkansas needs in the post-Roe frontier.

Do we want to wall in our pregnant women without substantial means and keep them from medical care elsewhere?

And will it remain in Arkansas that life is life but rape and incest are negotiable?

I sense the pro-life movement is coming with the message that the issue of a woman's choice is finished business and now we must make things nicer for women fated by law to be birthing vessels.

We'll see how that goes over.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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