UPDATE, December 9: The Arkansas legislature voted Thursday to defeat a resolution to extend the special session by 15 days to consider anti-abortion legislation. Both houses of the legislature adjourned without voting on the anti-abortion bill.
As Arkansas launched a special legislative session Tuesday nominally dedicated to passing income tax cuts, a leading anti-choice Republican in the state senate introduced a copycat version of Texas SB 8, legislation that effectively bans abortions after six weeks and allows any citizen to sue those who help a pregnant person get the procedure.
Reproductive rights advocates have been bracing for this moment for several months, ever since Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, who has sponsored some of the most aggressive bills to restrict abortion access over the last few years, came out in September to praise SB 8.
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Earlier this year, Rapert pushed through an abortion ban that only permitted abortions to save the life of the pregnant person, but did not provide any exceptions for those impregnated by rape or incest. A federal judge in July preliminarily blocked the law, but it was just one of 20 abortion restrictions Arkansas passed this year alone.
In early October, Rapert, who did not return requests for comment for this story, announced that he would be filing a version of Texas SB 8 as soon as Arkansas’ special session launches, which at the time lawmakers thought would be on October 25.
“I am filing the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act with a civil cause of action—just like Texas,” he tweeted then. “I invite [Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson] to put the bill on the call and legislators to co-sponsor.”
According to the state’s legislative rules, since Hutchinson did not include abortion on his “call,” Rapert has to rally two-thirds of his colleagues in both chambers in order to have his bill considered in the special session. Rapert expressed confidence earlier in the fall that he could reach that support threshold. He also insisted that he must continue to be “creative” in his legislative pushes against abortion access, given that other bills he’s authored have been struck down in court.
SB 13 was filed Tuesday afternoon with Rep. Mary Bentley as the bill’s other primary sponsor; 28 other Republicans co-sponsored it.
Hutchinson had declined to say what he would do if the legislature passes copycat SB 8 legislation, but he said he thinks lawmakers should wait to see the decisions the Supreme Court hands down on SB 8 and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban that the Court heard a week ago. Rapert has said he’s frustrated with Hutchinson’s stance.
Holly Dickson, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said trying to bring up a sensitive bill like this outside of the state’s regular legislative session is “unorthodox.” The ACLU has been monitoring the possibility of a Texas copycat law ever since Rapert issued his first threat.
“We’ll oppose any effort to do that and have been advising legislators against this blatantly unconstitutional move,” Dickson said.
Public opinion is somewhat mixed on the idea. In late September, a survey from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, which polled 916 likely Arkansas voters on their opinions of Texas SB 8, found about 46.5 percent of voters would support a similar bill in Arkansas, and about 49.5 percent would oppose it. Only 4 percent of respondents said they didn’t have an opinion at the time. The pollsters found opposition was particularly strong among those under 30 years old, and among people of color.
In early November, the 23rd annual Arkansas Poll was released, which conducted 800 telephone interviews with randomly selected adults across the state, and found 41 percent of all very likely voters support laws that would make it harder to get an abortion. More than a quarter of very likely voters think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, the highest percentage ever found in this poll, according to Charisse Dean of the Little Rock-based Family Council, a conservative research and advocacy group
Last month the national anti-abortion organization, Americans United for Life, ranked Arkansas as “the most pro-life state” in the country for the second year in a row. Arkansas already requires individuals seeking abortion to undergo a mandatory 72-hour waiting period, as well as to get two in-person visits at an abortion facility. Telemedicine for abortion is banned in Arkansas, and patients can access abortion only up to 20 weeks postfertilization, or 22 weeks’ gestation.
In mid-October, Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes announced it would be launching an “aggressive statewide campaign” in Arkansas to defeat the proposed Texas copycat abortion ban. Among other things the organization said it had hired additional organizing and communications staff dedicated to the effort, would be hosting in-person and virtual events across the state to educate voters, and would be contacting over 20,000 state residents to discuss the implications.
“We’ve also really been targeting the legislature to help them understand the human impact,” said Emily Wales, the interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
Following the passage of SB 8 in Texas, visits by abortion-seekers into Arkansas jumped significantly. In September, Texas patients comprised 19 percent of Little Rock Family Planning Services’ caseload, after being less than 2 percent in August.
Many people are also traveling from Texas to Oklahoma for abortion care, though Oklahoma has passed its own wave of new abortion restrictions. In September, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit to block five of these new restrictions, which were set to take effect in November. The litigation has been successful; all five of the Oklahoma laws have been temporarily blocked so far.
More public-facing organizing against a Texas copycat law, Wales said, was delayed in Arkansas because the special session was pushed back from October. Advocates had said in mid-November that they expect in-person events against a copycat ban to pick up if and when Rapert’s bill is formally introduced.
“We will have in-person rallies outside the capitol,” Wales said. “If Texas has taught us anything it’s that you have to be really visible about what the outcomes are. We’re seeing patients in Texas who are shocked that their legislature passed [SB 8] and they weren’t paying attention before.”
In late September, a Republican state representative in Florida introduced the first copycat Texas bill, which almost identically mirrors SB 8. But reproductive rights advocates in Florida say they are less concerned that the bill will become law anytime soon, given the repeated failure of Florida lawmakers to pass a six-week abortion ban.
Karen Musick, the co-founder and vice president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, an all-volunteer nonprofit that helps Arkansans access abortion care, said they’ve definitely seen an uptick in donations since Texas SB 8 was passed but that their attention has largely been focused on organizing volunteers.
“People have really come out of the woodwork and said, ‘My home is available if someone needs a place to stay, if someone needs help getting to another place I will take them,’” Musick said. “We’re collecting all these people who have benefited from abortion care in the past and want to do as much as they can now to ensure the next generation has access too.”
Musick said that while there’s less they can do to stop the current legislature from passing new restrictions, they can at least focus on organizing people.
“Our job is to forge as many contacts as we can,” Musick said. “We need to build a base of transportation volunteers, escort volunteers, money and counseling volunteers.”