Posted 2/10/2013 05:40 pm
Updated 1 year ago
LITTLE ROCK — The push for a ban on abortions at 12 weeks into a pregnancy is testing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's willingness to fight a Republican majority in the Arkansas Legislature on an issue that deeply divides members of his own party.
A former attorney general who has supported some abortion restrictions in the past, Beebe is framing the debate over the "heartbeat" abortion ban as more of a legal issue than one about women's rights. He has derided the legislation as patently unconstitutional, while stopping short of saying whether he'll veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
"If it gets to me, then to a large extent I'll be guided by that," Beebe told reporters shortly before a House committee endorsed the legislation, which would ban abortions if a heartbeat is detected no earlier than 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
Even under the Democratic majorities he enjoyed up until this year's session, Beebe rarely issues veto threats. That's especially the case on polarizing issues such as abortion, where he's tried to stake a middle ground in a state that's grown increasingly conservative in recent years.
Finding footing on that middle ground has become more difficult for Beebe and Democratic legislators. The 12-week ban would likely be the strictest in the nation and is one of several abortion-restricting bills legislators are considering after Republicans won control of the House and Senate last year.
The abortion restrictions have won near-unanimous support from Republicans in the House and Senate, but have more closely divided Democrats in the General Assembly. At least half of the House Democratic caucus supported a prohibition on insurance coverage for abortions in the exchange created under the health care law and another measure that would ban most abortions 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
Both measures cleared a House committee where Democrats hold a one-vote majority. More than a third of the Senate's Democrats backed the coverage ban, which Beebe has said he plans to sign into law.
Democrats who support abortion rights acknowledge they face an uphill battle against the new restrictions with the new Republican majority in both chambers. Sen. Joyce Elliott, who has been an outspoken opponent of the bills, says she's not faulting Democrats for a lack of a unified front against the new restrictions.
She says she's more mystified by the lack of Republicans questioning the coverage ban and similar measures.
"That's just normal that you're not in lockstep on all these bills because people have different feelings," said Elliott, D-Little Rock. "It's just incredible to me that every single Republican believes exactly the same thing."
The drift of Democrats toward more abortion restrictions comes as polls show voters nationwide supporting abortion rights. Abortion opponents see Arkansas' move against that trend as a positive sign.
"Our lawmakers are to be commended for voting in line with the values of the people they represent," Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, said in a statement released after the vote. "They know the people of Arkansas are overwhelmingly pro-life."
Beebe's support for the exchange ban, which would include exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, join a limited list of abortion restrictions he's backed since taking office in 2007. He voiced concerns about similar legislation two years ago that didn't include the exemptions, but that measure died before a House committee that rejected several proposed abortion restrictions that year.
Beebe also has backed placing new regulations on the clinics that offer the abortion pill and a bill mirroring a federal law banning late-term abortions.
But on the heartbeat bill, Beebe is being careful to not rule the legislation out completely.
"I'm opposed to anything that I think is blatantly unconstitutional," Beebe told reporters last week.
The coming days will test whether that warning is enough to keep the measure away from his desk.