LITTLE ROCK — The sponsor of a bill to ban an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected said Tuesday he would modify the measure to ensure that the test for a heartbeat does not require women to undergo an invasive procedure.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, disclosed his intentions just hours after a House committee voted to table his Senate Bill 134, which had sailed through the Senate on Thursday in a 26-8 vote.
Rapert said the bill will be amended to ban an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected by abdominal ultrasound. He said the change is intended to allay the concerns of some legislators about the possibility that the measure would require doctors to use vaginal probes to check for fetal heartbeats.
"We wanted something that would not in any way be invasive and respect the rights of women," he said.
The bill does not specify how doctors would check for fetal heartbeats, but Rapert previously said a fetal heartbeat can be detected at about six weeks, and witnesses who testified against the bill in committee said checking for a heartbeat that early would require an ultrasound conducted with a vaginal probe.
Rapert said Tuesday evening that with an abdominal ultrasound specified as the means of detection, "you’ll be looking probably in the 12-week area."
He said the change should make the bill "a much better bill going forward" and ensure its passage.
"I already had Democratic votes for the bill before, but we definitely have shored things up by getting rid of that concern," he said.
The bill includes exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Earlier Tuesday, the House Public Health Committee voted to put the bill "on the table," a parliamentary move that gives a committee control over when, or if, a bill is brought back for consideration by the panel.
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the committee’s chairman, made the motion to table the bill. Burris told the Arkansas News Bureau he did not tell Rapert of his plans in advance, but he met with the senator later Tuesday and discussed concerns he and other members had about the legislation.
Taking the bill off the table would require a motion by a committee member that is supported by a majority of the quorum. Passing the bill out of the committee would require a vote by at least 11 members of the 20-member committee, which is comprised of 11 Democrats and nine Republicans.
"If there’s 11 people there, six people can bring it off the table, so the vote threshold is actually lower to bring something off the table" than to pass it out of the committee, Burris said. "It’s not an effort to kill the bill."
The use of vaginal probes is not the only concern opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have raised about the bill. They also say the bill is unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that states can regulate abortion after a fetus becomes viable, or capable of prolonged life outside the womb. Doctors generally do not consider a fetus viable before 23 weeks.
A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday the governor feels the bill "could potentially be unconstitutional."
Beebe met with Rapert on Monday and discussed the bill, Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. He said Beebe has not yet taken a position for or against the measure but will have more to say about it later.