LITTLE ROCK – An Arkansas lawmaker said Tuesday that he would ease his proposed ban on most abortions in the state so the procedure could still be performed until a heartbeat is detected using an abdominal ultrasound.
Even with the change, state Sen. Jason Rapert’s proposal would likely be the strictest abortion ban in the nation, prohibiting the procedure as early as 10 to 12 weeks into pregnancy. Rapert had original proposed a ban that could have applied as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and North Dakota lawmakers are considering similar legislation.
Rapert said he planned to change the legislation to address concerns raised by other lawmakers after a House panel voted to delay consideration of the proposed ban. The Senate passed the abortion ban last week.
Opponents have said the only way to detect a heartbeat as early as six weeks is by using a vaginal probe. Rapert’s proposal includes exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
“We would protect a child when there is a detectible heartbeat with an abdominal ultrasound,” Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters.
Rapert’s original proposal won easy approval in the Senate last week, and is one of several new abortion restrictions being considered in Arkansas after Republicans won control of the House and Senate in last year’s election. But Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Republican House Speaker Davy Carter have raised concerns about the constitutionality of Rapert’s measure.
A spokesman for Beebe, who has not said whether he opposes Rapert’s bill, said the governor would look at the amendment as he reviews whether the “heartbeat” bill is constitutional.
Rapert announced the change hours after the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee tabled his bill for later discussion. Rep. John Burris, the panel’s chairman, said the legislation was tabled over various concerns.
“I’ll need to read it, but the concepts I think are much more in the field of where it needs to be,” Burris, R-Harrison, told reporters.
Burris said he believes the changes likely won’t address complaints that the legislation would invite lawsuits. Opponents have said Rapert’s proposal runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel earlier Tuesday said he had concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.
“I can only defend it if it’s arguably constitutional, so I have not taken a position on whether we could offer a credible defense for this bill if it got out,” McDaniel told reporters. “But, given the politics of how it’s progressing through the committee system at this point, what we’ve chosen to do is share our concerns privately, thus leaving litigation options to us.
Bettina Brownstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said the change to Rapert’s bill wouldn’t solve the legal problems created by banning abortions that early.
“Twelve weeks is not going to pass constitutional muster,” Brownstein said. “Twelve weeks is still going to ban a large percentage of abortions.”
Burris said, however, he’s not worried about the threat of lawsuits.
“The threat of litigation is not a reason to not pass a bill,” Burris said.
Rapert said he’s confident the measure will be approved by the House panel. Democrats control 11 of the 20 seats on the committee.
“I think it’ll be a better bill and I think it’s still good because it’s still better than the situation we have now,” Rapert said.
The changes to Rapert’s legislation come a day after the House approved two other abortion restrictions. One would ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and the other would prohibit insurers participating in the exchange created under the federal health care law from covering abortions. Both are now pending before a Senate committee.
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