LITTLE ROCK — The political sea change that conservatives envisioned in the wake of Republicans gaining control of the General Assembly may have shown signs of becoming a reality last week, at least on two hot-button issues.
Bills on abortion and guns advanced in the Legislature with little opposition. Some of the measures were introduced unsuccessfully in past sessions but appear likely to win approval this year, the first year that Republicans have held majorities in the House and Senate since the end of the Civil War.
"This is historic," Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, said in a statement Thursday after three bills to place new limits on abortion advanced. "There was a time when a lot of lawmakers did not even want to talk about life and abortion, much less vote on it."
Others see the trend as disturbing. Comments such as "Women’s rights are moving backwards" and "We’re on the cutting edge of setting women’s rights back 40 years" were popping up frequently on Twitter late in the week, along with comments in support of the abortion measures.
The abortion bills moving through the Legislature include Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, which would ban an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. A fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks, so if the bill becomes law Arkansas would have the earliest-stage abortion ban in the country.
Other abortion bills include House Bill 1100 by Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, which would ban insurers from offering abortion coverage through the state’s health insurance exchange, and HB 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would ban an abortion after 20 weeks — the point at which the bill claims a fetus can feel pain — except to save the mother from death or physical impairment.
Rapert’s fetal heartbeat bill cleared the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Wednesday and then passed in the Senate on Thursday in a 26-8 vote. The bills by Wilkins and Mayberry both cleared the House Public Health Committee on Thursday.
Meanwhile, SB 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would allow churches to decide whether to allow people with concealed-carry permits to carry guns into church, sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 23, passed 28-4 in the Senate on Monday and cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Tellingly, the bills all passed in committee on voice votes that were not close enough for anyone to bother requesting a roll-call vote.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has said he supports the bills by Wilkins, Mayberry and King and has not formed an opinion on Rapert’s.
Gov. Mike Beebe has said he has no objection to King’s bill and is still studying the abortion bills. Ultimately his opinion may not matter, however, because the House and Senate can overturn a gubernatorial veto with a simple majority vote.
Mayberry and King are both trying again with bills that failed in the 2011 session. Mayberry’s fetal pain bill died in the House Public Health Committee; King’s bill passed in the House — King was a House member then — but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"There’s certainly a different climate" at the Capitol, King said Friday.
Rapert filed a bill in 2011 that would have required a test for a fetal heartbeat before an abortion but would not have prohibited the abortion if a heartbeat is detected. That bill, a much less restrictive measure than his current bill, died in the House Public Health Committee.
One legislator has filed a bill that manages to unite the issues of self-defense and protection of the unborn. SB 170 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, would allow a pregnant woman to use deadly force to protect what the bill terms as her "unborn child" in certain situations.
Stubblefield filed the same bill in 2011, but it died in the House Public Health Committee. He said he is more hopeful this year, in part because the makeup and leadership of that committee has changed. Though Democrats hold a majority of seats on the committee, a majority of the members are pro-life, he said.
But Stubblefield said there is also "a whole different attitude" at the Capitol these days.
"Arkansas is a pro-life state," he said. "I think they’ve picked up on it this time. To be honest with you, I think the elections had a lot to do with it. A lot of these candidates ran as pro-life candidates, and a lot of those candidates won."
Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, noted that in past sessions, bills on guns and abortion tended to die in committee, not on the House or Senate floor.
"I think a lot of these things got quashed by very carefully crafted committee majorities in the past, because once they made it to the floor, once they made it to a place where you would be on the record (and could be) easily painted as pro-choice or not pro-life enough — nobody wanted to get to that place. But now they don’t have that safety," she said.
The House Public Health Committee, where nearly every abortion bill filed in 2011 died, was chaired at that time by Democrat Linda Tyler of Conway. The committee is now chaired by Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, who served as House minority leader in the last session, when Democrats were still in the majority.
Tyler ran for the Senate last year and was defeated in November by Rapert.