Posted 3/10/2013 04:32 pm
Updated 12 months ago
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Welcome to ground zero of the fight over abortion.
With the adoption of the nation's most restrictive law, abortion opponents in Arkansas have enjoyed more wide-reaching victories over the past eight weeks at the state Legislature than they've seen in the four decades since Roe v. Wade. And the end may not be in sight.
The Republican-led Legislature's override of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of the ban on most abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy sets up a legal fight that's almost certain, in the long run, to wind up before the nation's highest court. But Arkansas voters could deliver a verdict for their government leaders as early as next year.
Are Republicans going to be rewarded for backing abortion restrictions that directly challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion up until viability — or will Democrats be punished for not doing so? Or are voters fatigued with the set of abortion restrictions that has taken center stage in a session that was supposed to focus on tax cuts and Medicaid?
The soul-searching presents risks for both sides.
Unfazed by the likelihood of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the bans, Republicans portray their votes as a principled stand against abortion that reflects the state's conservative Bible Belt roots. The threat of a court challenge wasn't enough to scare them off.
"Not the governor, nor anyone else other than the courts, can determine if something is constitutional or unconstitutional," House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, told his colleagues before the vote to override Beebe's veto of the 12-week ban.
Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, who has become the public face of the anti-abortion push in the Legislature after sponsoring the 12-week ban, has made it clear that his legislation is aimed at setting a new standard for viability.
"This standard is to reinvigorate over 200 years of precedent that we stood up for life," Rapert, R-Conway, said last week. "It was not until 1973 that broke with the precedent that we would protect human life. This is reinvigorating the conscience of America."
The risk to Republicans is that voters may question whether that reinvigoration is coming at the expense of other issues. Republicans note the abortion measures make up only a small part of the bills they're considering, but still to come are discussions on whether Arkansas should cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and ban the use of telemedicine to distribute the abortion pill.
"I was hoping we were finished with what I think is, intended or not, an attack on women," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who has been an outspoken critic of the new abortion restrictions.
Even Republican legislative leaders are expressing some weariness with the issue, but stopping short of opposing any more abortion restrictions. They include House Speaker Davy Carter, who has urged lawmakers to focus on tax cuts and the debate over expanding health care as lawmakers approach what could be the final weeks of the session.
"I'm not focused on that anymore," Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters when asked about the proposed abortion restrictions. "I'm focused on these other things."
The abortion votes, however, expose a deeper divide for Democrats as they try to find the right balance. Many have tried to follow the lead of Gov. Mike Beebe, a popular Democrat who has focused more on the constitutionality of the measures more than the larger debate on abortion.
"You know, you put your hand on the Bible and you're supposed to swear to uphold the constitution. It should mean something," Beebe said, referring to his oath of office.
But it is still a tricky line for Democratic lawmakers to follow, especially those who go before voters next year. Several Democrats in both chambers voted for the 12-week and 20-week abortion bans, but immediately voted against overriding Beebe's veto on the measures.
"It's one of those inconsistencies you've just got to live with," Sen. Larry Teague, a Democrat who backed both bans but voted against the overrides, said last week.
In less than 20 months, Democrats and Republicans will discover whether voters can live with any of the inconsistencies in this debate.