Abortion bills spark contention, get House panel’s OK


LITTLE ROCK — A pair of bills that would ban abortions in Arkansas after as early as 12 weeks into pregnancy received endorsements Tuesday from a House committee after contentious exchanges and, on one of the bills, a challenge that led to a re-vote.

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed House Bill 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would ban an abortion after 20 weeks, and Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would bar the procedure after 12 weeks.

After questions were raised about the vote on SB 134, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, sent it back to committee for another vote later Tuesday.

Both bills were in committee for approval of amendments. Both were approved on voice votes, though the chairman, Sen. John Burris, R-Harrison, appeared to ignore demands for a roll call on Rapert’s bill, drawing a stern rebuke from the panel’s Democratic vice chairman.

After the voice vote, Burris said, “Chair rules the ayes have it” and immediately recognized the sponsor of the next bill to be considered.

Several members quickly raised their hands calling for a roll call on Rapert’s bill, which would put each member’s vote on record. When Burris did not respond, Vice Chairman Rep. Reginald Murdock, D Marianna, objected.

Burris said he had already recognized the sponsor of the next bill to be considered.

Murdock then accused Burris of abusing his authority.

“So as vice chairman, I’m going to make sure that I voice opposition and make it known that there is an abuse of your position because there was a roll call called (for) promptly after the voice vote,” Murdock said. “ According to our rules, that should be recognized upon (a show) of hands.”

“That will be fine. You can appeal to the Rules Committee,” Burris said.

After the House convened for its afternoon session, Carter called a recess and met privately with members of the House Public Health committee. When the chamber reconvened, Murdock officially challenged the voice vote on SB 134 and Carter referred the bill back to committee for another vote.

In the second vote, the committee voted 11-5 to endorse the bill as amended.

Voting “yes” were Reps. Burris; Butch Wilkins, D-Bono; Stephanie Malone, R-Fort Smith; Kelley Linck R-Yellville; Justin Harris, R-West Fork; Kim Hammer, R-Benton; David Branscum, R-Marshall; David Meeks, R-Conway; Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley; Chris Richey, D-West Helena; and Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia.

Voting “no” were Reps. Murdock, James Word, D-Pine Bluff; Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville; Frederick Love, D-Little Rock; and Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis.

Burris told reporters later that he had not allowed a roll call vote because he thought it was unnecessary.

“By my calculations of the committee and knowledge of how they felt, and hearing the vote, I thought the votes were there,” he said.

But Burris said he agreed with the speaker’s decision.

“For the sake of cleanliness, I thought it was good to send it back,” he said.

Murdock told reporters he thought Burris “made a poor decision as chairman” not to allow a roll-call vote.

“But we did correct it, so we do want to move on forward,” he said, adding that he and Burris still have a good relationship.

Carter told reporters he had viewed a video recording of the morning committee meeting and concluded that complaints about the vote were reasonable.

“Any time that we have … any reasonable objection to a procedural issue in committee, the speaker’s office is committed to making sure we uphold the integrity of the process,” he said.

Rapert called the day “interesting” and said he expected the bill to pass on the House floor on Thursday.

Rapert’s bill would require a woman seeking an abortion at 12 weeks of gestation or later to undergo an abdominal ultrasound to check for a fetal heartbeat, and it would prohibit an abortion if a heartbeat is detected.

The amendment approved Tuesday would remove a felony penalty for doctors who violate the measure, replacing it with loss of the doctor’s medical license, and would add an exception in the case of a fetal anomaly that would not allow the child to live after birth.

The voice vote on Mayberry’s bill was not contested, but it followed a pointed exchange between Burris and Rita Sklar, director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU opposes both bills.

Sklar, who had not testified when HB1037 bill previously went before the committee, came forward Tuesday and accused the panel of being oblivious to women’s health.

“I tried not to testify in front of this committee because I know that my testimony is not necessarily taken seriously, certainly in terms of medical concerns,” she said. “But I don’t think it matters who’s testifying on medical concerns. It simply is a matter of fact that women’s health is not of concern here.”

Burris responded, “Ma’am, are you going to testify? If you’re going to testify, don’t impugn the reputation or the character of the people in this committee. Focus your testimony on the bill and nothing else.”

“Yes, sir. I think that the actions of this committee speak for themselves,” Sklar shot back.

“Then your testimony is over. Thank you.” Burris said.

Mayberry’s bill would ban abortions at 20 weeks, the point at which the bill says a fetus is capable of feeling pain. The amendment approved Tuesday would add exceptions if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Mayberry’s bill goes to the House for final legislative consideration. Rapert’s bill goes to the House and if approved there will go to the Senate for concurrence on the House amendment.

Gov. Mike Beebe has questioned the constitutionality of both measures but has not said whether he would veto them if they reach his desk.