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Arkansas Senate Votes to Override Dem Governor's Veto, Backs 12-Week Abortion Ban


"I still agree with it. It's the thing to do."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of legislation that would ban most abortions from the 12th week of pregnancy onward and give the state the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

There was no debate before the 20-14 vote. Beebe told legislators in his letter explaining his veto Monday that he believes the proposal is unconstitutional and conflicts with the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. But the bill's sponsor said after Tuesday's vote that he thinks the Democratic governor is wrong.

"That's not valid. The U.S. Constitution says nothing whatsoever about abortion. This is governed by case law," said Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican from Conway.

The House sponsor of Rapert's bill said she'll ask that chamber to vote on an override Wednesday. Only a simple majority is needed in each chamber to trump a governor's veto. If the House overrides Beebe's veto, the 12-week ban would take effect later this year.

Last week, the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode Beebe's veto of a separate bill outlawing most abortions beginning in the 20th week of pregnancy. That bill, which immediately became law, is based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain by then and thus, deserves protection from abortion.

So-called fetal pain laws enacted in other states are being challenged in court, and abortion rights proponents have said they would sue to block Arkansas' 12-week ban if it's approved. The 12-week standard is based on when a fetus' heartbeat can typically be detected through an abdominal ultrasound.

"Just like we said last time, the Legislature has the final say," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said after Tuesday's vote. "So we'll see what the House decides to do.

"We don't purport to guess what either house of the Legislature will do on any issue, so we just, at this point, (there's) nothing for us to do but watch and see what happens. The governor's already stated his position pretty strongly," DeCample said.

All 14 Senate Democrats voted against the override, including five who supported the ban last week.

"I still agree with it. It's the thing to do," said Sen. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan. He said he voted against the override as a courtesy to the governor.

Beebe contends that both measures are unconstitutional and contradict Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion until a fetus can viably survive outside the womb, generally around 22 to 24 weeks. Beebe says the state would have to waste money defending the bans in court, and noted that Arkansas paid nearly $148,000 to attorneys for plaintiffs who successfully challenged a 1997 late-term abortion ban.

The 12-week ban would prohibit abortions when a heartbeat is detected using an abdominal ultrasound. It includes exemptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother and highly lethal fetal disorders. The 20-week prohibition includes all of the same exemptions except for fetal disorders.

The measure is among several abortion restrictions lawmakers have backed since Republicans won control of the House and Senate in the November election. Republicans hold 21 of the 35 Senate seats, and 51 of the 100 seats in the House.

Beebe has signed into law one of those measures - a prohibition on most abortion coverage by insurers participating in the exchange created under the federal health care overhaul.

If ultimately approved, the 12-week restriction wouldn't take effect until 90 days after the House and Senate adjourn. Lawmakers aren't expected to wrap up this year's session until later this month or April.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has vowed to sue if the state enacts the 12-week ban - and the group said it was considering legal action over the 20-week restriction as well. Planned Parenthood has called the 12-week ban the nation's most restrictive anti-abortion law.

"I think we're one step closer to the most intrusive abortion law in the country and it sets Arkansas back decades in public perception in the minds of other people: potential employers, businesses and people who might want to move here," said Rita Sklar, the ACLU of Arkansas' executive director.

The original version of Rapert's bill would have banned abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, but he changed the measure after facing resistance from some lawmakers worried that it would require a vaginal probe.

Women who have abortions would not face prosecution under Rapert's bill, but doctors who perform abortions in violation of the 12-week ban could have their medical licenses revoked.

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