LITTLE ROCK — The House on Wednesday voted 56-33 to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of legislation to ban most abortions after 12 weeks into pregnancy. The Senate overrode the gubernatorial veto Tuesday.
The House action on Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, now Act 301 of 2013, means Arkansas will have one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. Because it has no emergency clause requiring it to go into effect immediately, the measure will take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session.
A civil liberties advocate said a challenge to the law would be filed in federal court within weeks.
“We’re going straight to court to overturn this most extreme intrusion into women’s reproductive choices in the country,” said Rita Sklar, director of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is reckless disregard not just for the law but for the coffers of this state.”
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor knew that an override was possible, given that last week the House and Senate voted to override Beebe’s veto of another bill that would ban most abortions at 20 weeks. Beebe has said both bills are unconstitutional and that legal battles over them likely will be costly for the state.
“Now it looks like the final decision will be with the courts,” DeCample said Wednesday.
Rapert’s legislation will require a woman seeking an abortion 12 weeks or later into a pregnancy to undergo an abdominal ultrasound to check for a fetal heartbeat and will prohibit an abortion if a heartbeat is detected. It includes exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, medical emergencies and fetal anomalies that would not allow the child to live after birth.
A doctor found guilty of violating the law would lose his or her medical license.
Rapert said after Wednesday’s vote, “It’s a great day for Arkansas, it’s a great day for America.”
He said he was not concerned about the cost to the state to defend the law because there are private law firms willing to defend it for free.
DeCample said the biggest potential cost to the state is not the cost to defend the law.
“It’s when you lose the case and then have to pay the legal fees of the other side. That’s where the greater potential for taxpayer cost comes in,” he said.
Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, presented the bill on the House floor.
“The fundamental human right, the basis necessary for every other right, is first the right to life, the right to be born. Let’s give that to babies in Arkansas,” Clemmer urged House members.
Talking to reporters later, Clemmer disputed arguments by opponents that the law will jeopardize women’s health.
“I don’t think that having an abortion aids a woman’s health,” she said.
Clemmer, who teaches political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said that if the law does become costly for the state, “what cause is better to spend money for?”
The U.S. Supreme Court has said states cannot prohibit abortion before a fetus becomes viable, or able to survive outside the womb. Doctors generally consider a fetus to be viable at 23 or 24 weeks.
Sklar said there was no way to predict how the court would rule on the 20-week abortion ban, which was sponsored by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley. She said the ACLU and its allies are waiting to see what happens with a court challenge to a similar Arizona law, which a federal judge has upheld but is now before an appellate court.
“But 12 weeks is in another universe altogether,” she said.
Sklar said the Arkansas Legislature has turned its back on women and sent a terrible message to the rest of the country.
“Arkansas is going back to the Stone Age,” she said. “We are going backwards in time in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, the status of women in this country. It is terrible.”
The House voted 53-28 last week to override the veto of Mayberry’s 20-week abortion ban. Two Democrats joined with Republicans in voting for the first override; six Democrats voted for the override on Wednesday.
Some Democratic members who abstained last week cast “yes” votes on Wednesday, and one Democrat who voted “no” last week, Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, voted “yes” on Wednesday.
Wilkins, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, said later that “I have over the years always given primary concern to a woman’s right to control her body,” but that he decided to vote for the override on Wednesday “as a man of faith and as a pastor, and after reflecting and praying about this and talking to members of my church.”
Rep. Jody Dickinson, D-Newport, who voted to override the vetoes of both bills, said that she “certainly meant no disrespect to the governor.”
“I had a lot of input from people who wanted me to vote for life, and that’s what I did,” she said.
After Wednesday’s vote, Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, submitted a letter to the House stating that he tried to vote “yes” on the override but he was counted as not voting. The letter will be entered into the House Journal but the official vote count will remain 56-33.