Arkansas Senate overrides veto of abortion bill

February 28, 2013 - 9:30 PM
Arkansas Legislature Abortion

Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, speaks to reporters in a hallway outside the Senate chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. The Senate voted Thursday to override Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of Mayberry's bill banning most abortions starting in the 20th week, a day after the state House voted to override it. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas became the eighth state Thursday to enact a near-ban on abortions starting in the 20th week of pregnancy, and by next week it could outlaw most procedures from the 12th week onward, which would give it the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The Republican-led Senate voted 19-14 along party lines to override Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of a bill barring most abortions starting in the 20th week of pregnancy that was based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain by that point. The Arkansas House voted to override the veto Wednesday. A simple majority was needed in each chamber.

That law, which took effect immediately but which will likely be challenged in court, includes exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, voted to override the veto, but later told reporters he wasn't sure the new law would survive a constitutional challenge.

"If it was an easy answer, then people wouldn't be raising that subject," he said after the vote.

After overriding the veto, the Senate voted 26-8 in support of a separate measure that would outlaw most abortions starting in the 12th week of pregnancy. In addition to the exemptions for rape, incest and the mother's life, it would allow abortions when lethal fetal conditions are detected.

The proposed 12-week ban, which would ban abortions from the point when a fetus' heartbeat can generally be detected through an abdominal ultrasound, would give Arkansas the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

"This extreme legislation would insert politics into women's personal medical decisions, and we urge Governor Beebe to veto it immediately," Richards said.

Beebe declined to say whether he'd veto the 12-week ban, and has until next week to decide. Unlike the 20-week ban, which took effect immediately, the 12-week restriction if enacted would take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. The Legislature is not expected to adjourn this year's session until March or April.

The governor has said he thinks it's on even shakier legal ground than the 20-week ban, which he believes contradicts the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion until a fetus can viably survive outside of the womb, which is typically at 22 to 24 weeks.

Beebe said Thursday's override did nothing to allay his concerns about the new abortion restrictions, including the amount of money the state will have to spend defending them. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office on Thursday estimated that the $118,000 the state paid in attorneys' fees to challengers who were successful in overturning a 1997 late-term abortion ban would equal about $163,000 today when adjusted for inflation.

"Nothing's changed from the standpoint of what I think the problem with the bill is," Beebe told reporters. "It's still the same problem it was before they overrode the veto."

Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said she was disappointed with the Senate's override and said her group is considering suing.

"We are going to do everything within our power to protect the health and reproductive decision-making abilities of women and in this case that includes looking very carefully at litigation," she said.

Democrats who previously voted for the 20-week ban but against the override said they did so out of deference to Beebe and the concerns he raised over the measure's constitutionality.

"The budget's tight. We're working on giving businesses and individuals some tax relief. I don't think it makes sense to spend money on expensive litigation," said Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, who is a co-chairman of the budget committee.

The 20-week near-ban is based on the disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain by then and therefore deserves protection from abortion. Those who support fetal pain bills say there is evidence that by 20 weeks, fetuses seek to evade stimuli in a way that indicates they are experiencing pain.

But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it knows of no legitimate evidence that shows a fetus can experience pain. It says a fetus' brain begins its final stage of development between the 20th and 40th weeks of pregnancy, and that certain hormones that develop in the final trimester also must be present for it to feel pain. It's not known exactly when those hormones are formed.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks laws affecting women's health, seven other states have enacted similar fetal pain abortion laws. Similar laws in Georgia and Arizona have been blocked pending the outcome of legal challenges.

Mary Spaulding Balch, the director of state legislation for the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, applauded the Arkansas Legislature's vote overriding Beebe's veto.

"Basic compassion for human life demands that this legislation be enacted all over the country," Balch said.

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Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo