While Texas has so far dominated other states in the number of anti-choice proposals, with at least 25 bills introduced to restrict reproductive rights, no other state has passed into law more anti-choice legislation in 2015 than Arkansas.
Almost every bill introduced by state lawmakers designed to chip away at reproductive rights was passed by Arkansas lawmakers and eventually signed into law by newly elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who defeated former Gov. Mike Beebe (D) in November. The state legislature is dominated by Republicans, who hold a 64-36 majority in the house and a 20-13 majority in the senate.
Abortion is already highly regulated in Arkansas, with access severely restricted. During the last regular legislative session in 2013, there were seven bills introduced by Arkansas legislators that sought to make access to abortion care even more difficult for women and families in the state.
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Of the seven bills introduced, four were passed, including a ban on insurance coverage of abortion and a fetal homicide law. Lawmakers also passed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation. Most of these same proposals have been introduced in a host of state legislatures, but few have found their way out of committee.
Arkansas passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country during the 2013 legislative session: a bill banning abortion after 12 weeks’ gestation that was vetoed by Beebe. The law was blocked by a federal court, pending the outcome of litigation, after a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union.
During the 2014 campaign, Hutchinson said he would have signed both the 12-week and 20-week abortion bans.
Eight bills were introduced in 2015 by state lawmakers looking to restrict reproductive rights, and of those, six were passed by lawmakers and have become law.
“Both the number and the direct impact on families in Arkansas, this session was really unprecedented,” said Erin Davison-Rippey, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, told the Associated Press. “When you compile them as a whole, it’s absolutely devastating for people seeking health care.”
HB 1578, sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale), was signed into law by Hutchinson earlier this month. Passed by lawmakers with little opposition, by a vote of 75-1 in the house and 26-4 in the senate, the new law mandates that women seeking abortion care be provided with biased and medically inaccurate information.
The bill requires a forced counseling session at least 48 hours before an abortion can be performed. It also provides the person seeking the abortion with other materials that include misleading information published by the state.
If a pregnant person is seeking an abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, the physician performing the abortion must provide the person with medically inaccurate information on fetal pain.
The law also includes the requirement that physicians inform patients that a medication abortion can be reversed, despite no substantiated medical evidence to support the claim. The language is similar to wording found in a law passed this year in Arizona.
Medical experts and reproductive rights advocates have raised concerns about the potential public health implications associated with the state endorsing unproven and potentially dangerous medical protocols.
Several other laws were passed that would restrict access to abortion abortion care in myriad ways.
SB 53, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), and its companion bill, HB 1076, effectively ban the use of telemedicine abortion care in Arkansas. The bills prohibit the dispensing of abortion-inducing drugs by anyone other than a physician and require that the pregnant person and physician both be present in the same room when the drugs are administered.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) introduced SB 569, which prohibits public funds from going to organizations that provide abortion services. The state, according to the anti-choice law, may not award a grant to pay the direct or indirect cost of performing, inducing, referring, or counseling in favor of abortions.
Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), introduced HB 1407, which created new requirements for abortion providers by requiring all physicians and facilities, including abortion clinics, to dispose of human tissue through burial, cremation, incineration, or release to a patient or authorized person.
HB 1424, sponsored by Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), prohibits a physician from performing an abortion on a minor unless the doctor first obtains notarized written consent from the parent or guardian.
Two bills were introduced but failed to be passed by the Arkansas legislature.
SB 1050, sponsored by Scott Flippo (R-Bull Shoals), would have created more licensing requirements for abortion providers and increased the inspection requirements for Arkansas abortion clinics. The bill was passed by the senate with a 30-4 vote, but stalled in a house committee.
Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) introduced HB 1421, which would have required abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital located within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. The bill never received a vote and stalled in a house committee.
Jerry Cox, president of the right-wing Family Council, told the Arkansas News Bureau that the collection of new anti-choice laws do not restrict access to abortion, but ensure that women who choose abortion are fully informed, even though much of the legislatively mandated information is, at best, medically dubious.
“I believe these are some of the best pro-life laws in the country, because they accomplish two very good things,” Cox said. “No. 1, they protect the health and safety of women, and No. 2, I believe that these laws will result in women making the better choice of not getting an abortion.”
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement that women in Arkansas are now in the center of a region devastated by laws designed to shutter clinics and make it harder for them to get the full range of safe, legal reproductive health care they need.
“Women need ready access to reproductive health services, not interference in their personal lives and private decisions by politicians who presume to know better,” Northup said. “It’s time for these politicians to check their priorities and start spending their time on policies that actually help Arkansans.”
Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, told the Associated Press that having a GOP-controlled state legislature and a Republican governor were the keys to the passage of so many anti-choice laws.
“Now that the tide has turned and we have Republican lawmakers, that’s why we’re able to see [this many] bills filed in a session,” Mimms said.
The Arkansas legislature is in recess, and lawmakers are expected to return to formally adjourn the legislative session on April 22. Even as the 2015 season is coming to a close, anti-choice activists already have their sights set on the 2017 legislative session.
Mimms told the Associated Press that they are preparing to push a new kind of radical anti-choice legislation that has made waves in other state legislatures this year: so-called “dismemberment” bans on dilation and evacuation abortion procedures.