LITTLE ROCK — Legislation banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy became law in Arkansas on Thursday when the Senate voted to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto.
The Senate then swiftly passed and sent to the governor’s desk an even more restrictive abortion ban.
In a 19-14 vote, the Senate voided Beebe’s veto of House Bill 1037 — the House voted to override Wednesday — then voted 26-8 to give final legislative approval to Senate Bill 134, which would prohibit most abortions after 12 weeks.
With the Senate action, the 20-week abortion ban became effective immediately, giving Arkansas one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation — unless SB 134 becomes law.
Beebe has said both measures are constitutionally suspect, the second even more so than the first, but both bills passed by wide margins in both chambers.
If Beebe vetoes SB 134, the biggest hurdle for supporters may be in the House. The vote to override the veto of HB 1037 was closest in the House, where it passed with just two votes to spare.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has vowed to challenge the measures in court, urged the governor to veto SB 134, which it said would be the most restrictive abortion law in the country if enacted.
Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, said the bill shows "an absolute disregard" for the health of women in Arkansas. Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said it put women’s lives on the line.
"Nobody can predict what kinds of decisions a woman may have to make during a pregnancy, and it is outrageous for politicians to attempt to interfere in this serious and personal decision that a woman has to make with her family and her doctor," Camp said.
HB 1037, by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, bans abortions at 20 weeks into pregnancy, the point at which the bill claims a fetus is capable of feeling pain. It includes exceptions for rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the mother’s life or could cause irreversible physical impairment.
SB 134, by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, 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, except in cases of rape, incest, medical emergencies or fetal anomalies that would not allow the child to live after birth.
A violation of the measure would cost a doctor his or her medical license.
Rose Mimms, director of Arkansas Right to Life, called Thursday’s legislative action a "huge day for unborn children" in Arkansas, who she said "are now safe from the hands of abortionists who have ripped them limb by limb out of their mothers’ womb."
Mimms, who has headed the state’s largest anti-abortion group for more than 20 years, said a 2005 law it championed has saved the lives of hundreds of children whose mothers disdained abortion after receiving mandatory information about the capability of a fetus to feel pain.
Mayberry’s bill, which was part of Right to Life’s anti-abortion agenda, will save many more, she said, adding that the second-term lawmaker whose 2011 fetal-pain bill passed the House but died in the Senate "is a hero to us."
Mayberry said he was "very pleased."
"It’s a good day," he said. "This is a good law. It’s constitutional. It saves babies, and that’s always a great thing."
The 19-14 vote to override the governor’s veto of HB1037 was along party lines. Several Democrats who voted for the bill originally voted against the override Thursday.
Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, who described himself as "pro-life," said he voted for the bill but against the override because of concerns the governor raised about the bill’s constitutionality.
"The governor says it may not be constitutional," he told reporters later. "Several other friends who are of legal minds that I trust think it may not be constitutional."
He said he also was concerned about the potential legal costs the state could incur if the measure is challenged in court.
Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, who also supported the original bill and then opposed the veto override, said the constitutional questions were an issue.
"It is a difficult decision, but yes, I do share some of his concerns and and gave some deference to that," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, who supported the override, told reporters he was not sure the new law would survive a legal challenge.
Rapert told reporters he wants the governor to "honor the vote of the Legislature" and either sign SB 134 or let it become law without his signature.
Beebe told reporters his concerns about Rapert’s bill have not changed.
"The Legislature has this prerogative," he said. "This is part of the process. We all know that. They did what … a majority of them thought they should do. I did what I thought I should do. Nothing’s changed from the standpoint of what I think the problem with the bill is."
The U.S. Supreme Court has said states cannot prohibit abortions before a fetus is able to live outside the womb. Doctors consider a fetus viable at 23-24 weeks.
A federal judge in Arizona has upheld a 20-week abortion ban. The ruling has been appealed.