Arkansas’ campaign to roll back reproductive rights

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, right, greets Sen. Bobby J. Pierce, D-Sheridan, on the floor of  the senate chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock...
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, right, greets Sen. Bobby J. Pierce, D-Sheridan, on the floor of the senate chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock...
AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Shaken by last fall’s presidential election and a string of setbacks in the national polls and state courts, some Republicans have tried this year to cool it with the assaults on reproductive freedom. It’s now clear that those Republicans do not live in Arkansas. So far this year, the state’s GOP lawmakers have passed not one but two abortion bans in defiance of the U.S. Constitution, and this week they overrode their Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto to push the more extreme of the two into law.

The bill in question, a ban on all abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, would be the nation’s most restrictive if it actually took effect, but that’s highly unlikely; courts in Georgia and Oklahoma have already overturned less flamboyant measures, and an Idaho court overturned one the same day Arkansas adopted its 12-week rule. But the bill’s swift ride through the Arkansas legislature is an interesting case study in the sheer power of cussedness.

The bill is the brain child of State Sen. Jason Rapert, a Tea Party Republican and amateur fiddler whose applause lines include “We’re going to take this country back for the Lord” and “We’re not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in.”

In January he introduced—and the state senate passed—a “human heartbeat protection” act barring abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detectable by ultrasound (after about six weeks of gestation). The state’s general assembly, with its slimmer Republican majority, was working on a similar bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.

The assembly members liked Rapert’s bill enough to pass it alongside with their own less stringent ban, but they knew it needed tweaking. A physician has to probe the vagina to detect a fetal heartbeat at six weeks’ gestation, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had already learned the hard way that mandatory probes are a political nonstarter.

So when Rapert started turning up in Tumblr cartoons, playing his fiddle with a giant ultrasound device, the assembly saved him further humiliation by shifting the cutoff from six weeks to 12, when the fetal heartbeat is detectable from outside the abdomen. The Senate accepted the amendment, and on March 1 Gov. Mike Beebe received a final bill prohibiting any clinician from “terminat[ing] the life of an unborn human individual whose heartbeat has been detected…and is twelve (12) weeks or greater gestation,” with a few narrow exceptions.

Beebe is no absolutist on reproductive rights—he pledged this week to sign and enforce a law that will bar abortion coverage in health policies sold through Arkansas’s state new insurance exchange. But Beebe vetoed the 12-week ban, reasoning that (a) it would be a waste of state resources to defend a law that couldn’t survive a court challenge and that (b) the bill “blatantly contradicts the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court.”

The court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision enshrined a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus is viable outside the womb—a threshold that some pregnancies reach by 24 weeks and that none meet by 20 weeks, let alone 12. But rather than settle for a symbolic victory, the Arkansas legislators voted Tuesday to override Bebee’s veto, pushing the whole issue toward the courts.

Left unchallenged, the law would take effect 90 days after the current legislative session ends in late March or early April. But the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights plan to file a suit within the next few weeks. “The ACLU will challenge this dangerous and unconstitutional law in court to put this private decision back in the hands of a woman and her family,” Elissa Berger, the civil liberties group’s advocacy and policy counsel, said in a statement.

Planned Parenthood doesn’t perform surgical abortions at its Arkansas health centers and won’t have a direct role in the lawsuit, but Rapert wants to punish the organization anyway. He has introduced another bill to block state coverage of the other health services Planned Parenthood offers to low-income Arkansans, such as birth control and cancer screenings. The ban covers any health organization whose services might include “recommending a pregnant woman to a doctor, clinic, or other person or entity for the purpose of obtaining or learning about obtaining an abortion.”

Such is the state of Arkansas politics. But the state’s women are fighting back. “For many Arkansas women, we are the only [affordable source of] well-woman exams, lifesaving cancer screenings, contraception, and STD prevention,” says Jull June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. “We call for Senator Rapert to put politics aside and put women’s health first.” Somehow, that doesn’t sound likely.

Arkansas' campaign to roll back reproductive rights