LITTLE ROCK — A bill that would prohibit an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected cleared a Senate committee Wednesday.
The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which advances to the Senate. The measure passed in a voice vote with at least two "no" votes heard on the eight-member panel.
Titled the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act, the bill would require a test for a fetal heartbeat before an abortion could be performed and would prohibit the abortion if a heartbeat is detected, unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Rapert testified that a fetal heartbeat can sometimes be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. He said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey that states have the ability to protect life at the point of viability.
"It is a settled fact that you cannot have viability without the presence of a fetal heartbeat," he said.
Bettina Brownstein, an attorney for the Arkansas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified against the bill. She told the panel that "viability" means a fetus would be able to survive outside the womb and said a 6-week-old fetus is not able to survive outside the womb.
"If this passes, you might as well write a check to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood, because we will feel the necessity to go to court to protect the rights of women. … I can guarantee that if passed into law it will be overturned, and it will be expensive for the state of Arkansas," Brownstein said.
The committee also heard testimony from Lori Williams, a nurse practitioner for Little Rock Family Planning, who held up a vaginal probe that she said would be the type of instrument used to check for a fetal heartbeat.
"This would require a woman to go through an invasive, medically unnecessary test that has been mandated by the Legislature," she said. "Decisions about which tests a woman needs should be made by her doctor or her medical professional, not by the Legislature."
Paul Phaneuf of the Fayetteville area, who said he was representing only himself, testified in support of the bill. He said the U.S. Supreme Court said in its Roe v. Wade decision that it was not able to determine when life begins.
"They said that it is the prerogative and the responsibility of the legislature to determine when life begins. That is what the state of Arkansas, it would seem to me, is trying to do with this bill," Phaneuf said.
Sens. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, noted that the bill apparently obligates the woman to pay for the procedure. Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said she has received emails from hundreds of constituents who oppose the bill.
"The sentiment from these emails of women, it’s like, ‘We don’t understand why we can’t be in charge of our bodies,’" Flowers said.
Chesterfield and Flowers voted against the bill.
Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters later he is studying the measure.
"There’s always a concern to ensure that we don’t do anything that violates the law in some fashion, that costs taxpayers’ money," Beebe said, but he said he has not yet taken a position on Rapert’s bill.
The bill appears likely to fare well in the Republican-controlled Senate. From there it will go to the House Public Health Committee, which is comprised of 11 Democrats and nine Republicans.
Rapert told reporters he has secured commitments from a majority of members of the House committee and is confident his bill will clear the panel and the House.
Regarding testimony that the bill is unconstitutional and would be challenged in court, Rapert said that "I believe life is worth fighting for."
"There was one time in this nation that it was legal to enslave African-Americans; it was constitutional. There was one time in this nation when women could not vote; it was constitutional. There’s a time when you have to stand up for what is right," he said.