Arkansas Senate Backs Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

LITTLE ROCK - Abortion providers and entities that perform abortion referrals would be unable to receive most government grants in Arkansas under a bill approved by the state Senate on Tuesday, a move aimed at cutting off money Planned Parenthood receives for sex education.

The Republican-controlled state Senate by a 19-11 vote backed the prohibition, which would also apply to "affiliates" of entities that perform abortions or referrals. The measure now heads to the majority-GOP House. The proposal would not apply to Medicaid funding.

Supporters say the bill is aimed primarily at cutting off grants that Planned Parenthood receives for sex education in Little Rock-area schools. Planned Parenthood said it provides information about preventing sexually transmitted diseases to 2,000 people through the grants.

"If a group like Planned Parenthood decided they didn't want to do abortions or abortion referrals, they could apply for these grants," Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, the bill's sponsor, told lawmakers.

Planned Parenthood, however, has warned that the measure is even more far-reaching and could threaten public money that domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers and doctors receive if they refer women to abortion providers.

"Today's vote is extremely disappointing for the thousands of teens who count on us for life saving prevention programs," Planned Parenthood of the Heartland President and CEO Jill June said in a statement. "It's disheartening that some extreme lawmakers would rather make a political statement against Planned Parenthood than support these vital prevention programs for our young people."

The proposal also faced objections from Democrats, who said it was unfair to prohibit state money to groups because of unrelated matters. They also questioned how the state could monitor whether it was awarding grants to groups that contract with abortion providers.

"It is not about abortions, but it is about singling out one entity," said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.

The move came as lawmakers neared the end of a session where abortion opponents have seen major legislative victories since Republicans won control of the House and Senate in November. The Legislature has enacted some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, including a measure set to take effect later this year that would ban the procedure in most cases 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

The backer of another abortion restriction, meanwhile, said she'd drop her proposal and try again in two years. Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said she wouldn't move forward this session with her proposal to ban the distribution of the abortion pill by telemedicine - a practice abortion opponents have referred to as "webcam abortions." Irvin moved to have her proposal studied after this year's session ends, and said she hoped to come back with the idea in 2015.

Planned Parenthood offers the abortion pill at its facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville, but has said it doesn't have any plans to use telemedicine to offer the medication in Arkansas. Supporters of telemedicine in other states have defended it as a safe and effective way, especially in rural areas where surgical abortions aren't available.

Irvin indicated she was unsure whether she could have gotten the proposal out of the Senate Public Health Committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

"I believe we had the support in the Senate chamber and I believe we had support in the House of Representatives as well," Irvin said. "But sometimes you can't get it out of committee, and that's a reality."

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