LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to prohibit most abortions if a heartbeat is detected, ignoring warnings from opponents that banning the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy would invite lawsuits.
If enacted, the ban would be the most stringent in the nation. The Ohio House passed a similar ban in 2011, but it was sidelined in the Senate last year over concerns that it might be found unconstitutional. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters Thursday that's the same concern that he's researching.
"I'm waiting on lawyers. I think that's the big concern right now -- does it run afoul of the Supreme Court or constitutional restrictions?" Beebe said. "That's the first thing we're looking at."
The Senate approved the new ban the same day that a House committee advanced two other abortion restrictions, part of a package of legislation anti-abortion groups believe are poised to become law now that Republicans control the state General Assembly.
The Senate approved the proposed "Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act" by a 26-8 vote. The measure, which now heads to a House committee, requires a test to detect a fetal heartbeat before an abortion is performed. If one is detected, a woman could not have an abortion, except in cases of rape, incest and if a mother's life is in danger.
Similar legislation is also being considered in North Dakota and Mississippi. All have faced complaints from abortion rights groups that it runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
"I'm asking you to stand up for life, and I believe when there is a heartbeat, based upon even the standard the Supreme Court has utilized, you cannot have a viable child without a heartbeat," Sen. Jason Rapert, the bill's sponsor, told lawmakers before they approved the legislation.
Five Democrats joined all 21 of the Senate's Republicans to vote for the restriction. Two Democratic lawmakers who spoke out against the bill said they believed it would be an invasion of women's rights to make decisions about their own health if the state enacted the ban.
"I don't want to go back to when women used kerosene and clothes hangers because they didn't have a choice," Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, told lawmakers.
A day earlier, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union told a Senate panel that the group would sue the state if it enacted the new restriction. Opponents have also noted that the only way to detect a fetal heartbeat at six weeks is by using a vaginal probe.
"Can you imagine what kind of feeling that would cause when inserted into a woman?" Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, asked Rapert on the Senate floor. Flowers voted against the bill.
"No," Rapert, R-Conway, replied.
The bill could go before the House Public Health Committee as early as next week, but its fate is uncertain. Democrats control 11 of the 20 seats on the panel, and Republicans only hold a 51 seat majority in the 100-member House.
Though the Legislature has considered abortion restrictions in recent years, most proposals haven't made it to the governor's desk under Democrat majorities. Beebe, however, has backed some abortion restrictions. He signed into law a proposal two years ago placing new regulations on the clinics that offer the abortion pill and in 2009 he signed legislation that mirrors a federal law banning late-term abortions.
Abortion rights advocates criticized the Senate for passing the legislation.
"This bill not only jeopardizes the health of all women who become pregnant in Arkansas, it's also unconstitutional," said Murry Newbern, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "It creates an undue burden for a woman seeking safe abortion and contradicts Roe v. Wade. "
The two other abortion restrictions that passed the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee earlier Thursday including legislation that would ban most abortions starting at the twentieth week of a woman's pregnancy based on the disputed notion that a fetus is capable of feeling pain at that point. The measure provides for some exceptions involving the health of the mother but it does not exempt rape or incest.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, said that passing the legislation was a moral obligation. Mayberry's wife, Julie, testified about her experience carrying to term a child with a disability.
Lawmakers on the House committee also approved legislation, without any discussion, that would prohibit most abortion coverage offered by Arkansas insurers under part of the federal health care overhaul. That measure does include rape and incest exceptions. It was approved by a voice vote with some dissent.
Abortion opponents hailed the votes Thursday as their biggest gains in years in Arkansas.
"I think a lot of people are beginning to understand that the people of Arkansas by and large are pro-life and you're seeing that reflected in how people vote here," said Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council.