Elections have consequences, employing a now-overworked (for its suddenly being so obvious to so many) phrase in responding to a question for a woman at a political forum I attended last December.
Health care was her primary concern, she said, with expansion of Medicaid and abortion rights at the top. I could not predict whether the General Assembly, in control of both House and Senate, would go along with Gov. Beebe and extend coverage to thousands of Arkansans now without health insurance. That access to abortion would be made more difficult was, I ventured, a given. Legislators of a political party with a platform opposing abortion, with no concession even to rape or incest, were hardly likely to leave the issue unaddressed, even if their efforts to restrict the practice or, as some members plainly would prefer, end it entirely, fly in the face of U.S. Supreme Court guidelines, or propose to test them anew.
And so it is. Legislation by Rep. Andy Mayberry (R.-Hensley) that challenges the court’s viability standard, a bill pro-choice forces have vowed to see struck down at the first opportunity, barreling through the House at near warp speed, appeared at mid-week to have hit a snag. While the Mayberry bill does make allowances for the mother’s health or life, it contains no exemption for rape or incest, nor does its sponsor believe it merits one. That posed no problem for the House, which endorsed it with a three-quarter majority and sent it sailing to the south end of the Capitol, where the winds were a bit calmer. Its failure to exclude felonious conception from its 20-week standard made the bill a tough sell in the Senate Public Health Committee.
In more or less the same vein, the House displayed some uneasiness about a Senate bill that two-thirds of the latter chamber approved, legislation that would shorten the viability period to the first detectable fetal heartbeat — as little as six weeks, opponents testified, a much smaller window that the Supreme Court has permitted. (The bill does exempt rape and incest cases, and the life — but not the health, another potential legal problem — of the mother). The problem seemed less the fetal developmental stage than the means the legislation would have compelled clinicians to use to determine it: the intra-vaginal “wand.” The device presumably was unheard of by most everyone save obstetricians and a comparatively few women — until last year, when an anti-abortion bill in the Virginia legislature brought it into the wider public domain. Howls of protest from pro-choice (and other) women’s groups augmented by the lampoons of television comedians prompted its sponsor to withdraw it. (A law stipulating conventional, external ultra-sound exams was enacted in its place). So now the Arkansas bill’s author, Sen. Jason Rapert (R.-Conway), is amending it, restricting pregnancy diagnostic methods to the ecto-.
What is at work with both bills is political public relations. The GOP has been scalded repeatedly at the polls by moderate, “swing” voters (and especially women) who emphatically rejected candidates whose abortion views they deemed extreme. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas was assisted in her first race for the U.S. Senate when her Republican opponent offered that “hormonal responses” usually protected women from pregnancy owing to rape. A dozen years later, last fall, near-identical remarks in Missouri and Indiana helped keep Senate seats regarded as certain Republican victories in Democratic hands.
A party interested in expanding its legislative majorities — and looking to capture the governorship in fewer than two years — cannot afford to present as insensitive on the most personal issue some women will face, and especially if it involves rape and incest. Even in an Arkansas steering determinedly to the right, appearances matter.
Appearances can be tricky, as in the case of legislation by Rep. Butch Wilkins (D.-Bono), which would appear to ban abortion coverage through the insurance exchanges arising from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). It wouldn’t matter if, as the bill’s critics contend, the woman or her family paid for such a rider (none now are offered) from their own funds. It’s a different twist on government intervention in personal liberties.
It is early in the session and more anti-abortion bills are possible. Mississippi and Alabama have, of late, set the standard for restrictive abortion laws, enacting or contemplating statutes governing facilities and providers as well as patients, with the stated ambition of the governor in Jackson being the absolute end of abortion in his state, never mind incest, rape or Roe.
Elections have consequences.