Beebe gets abortion coverage ban; fetal heartbeat bill advances


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation to bar insurers from providing abortion coverage through Arkansas’ health insurance exchange passed the Senate and headed to the governor Thursday, while an amended fetal heartbeat abortion bill advanced to the House.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday the governor would sign the first bill but had concerns about the second.

House Bill 1100 by Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, would prohibit insurers from offering coverage for elective abortions through the state’s health insurance exchange except through a separate rider on the policy with a separate premium which would have to be paid by the customer.

The amended version of Senate Bill 134 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, would make the procedure for detecting a fetal heartbeat less invasive and would not ban abortions before 12 weeks of gestation.

HB1100, which previously passed the House, won Senate approval on a 25-9 vote and goes the governor.

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, presented the bill on the Senate floor and said the federal Affordable Health Care Act allows states to opt out of offering abortion coverage and that 18 states have approved similar legislation.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill, saying there are currently no insurance riders for abortions offered, so the bill would essentially prohibit anyone from receiving an abortion under the federal law. She said its passage would penalize lower-income women who can’t afford to buy insurance outside of the exchange.

“With this bill passing, if it is your wife, your sister, your daughter and you don’t happen to have to buy your health insurance on the exchange, you’ve had a privilege. Every one of you in here will have a privilege because you’re not going to have to buy health insurance on the exchange,” Elliott said.

She also said while everyone calls the insurance exchange a government program, people will use their own money to buy the insurance.

“Give other people the same privileges and rights,” she said. “It’s not government if I’m writing the check.”

Bledsoe told reporters later that she believes there eventually will be an insurance rider available for abortion coverage. She also noted that HB 1100 does allow abortion coverage in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger.

Meanwhile, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee gave a “do pass” recommendation to an amended version of the so-called fetal heartbeat bill.

As originally written, Rapert’s SB 134 would have required any woman seeking an abortion in Arkansas to undergo a test for a fetal heartbeat and would have prohibited the abortion if a heartbeat is detected, except to save the mother from death or severe physical impairment.

The revised version would not ban abortions before 12 weeks and would require that the heartbeat test be performed via external abdominal ultrasound.

A person who performs an abortion in violation of the measure could be charged with a Class D felony punishable by up to six years in prison.

Rapert told the committee he agreed to the amendment to address concerns the bill would have required women to receive invasive ultrasounds using a vaginal probe and that it would have banned abortions as early as six weeks.

Another amendment endorsed by the committee removes an emergency clause that would have made the bill go into effect when the governor signs it or allows it to go into effect without his signature. Without the emergency clause, the bill, if passed, would take effect 90 days after the end of the session.

The bill passed previously in the Senate but had been hung up in the House committee since Tuesday, when the panel voted to table it. A motion to take the bill off the table passed Thursday in a voice vote.

Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, presented Rapert’s bill in the committee. She asserted that it would pass constitutional muster and said it would save about 815 lives a year in Arkansas.

“The choice that’s there can be made in the first 12 weeks,” she said. “But after 12 weeks we’re closing the door, except for rape, except for incest, except for these extreme health concerns.”

Among those who testified against the bill was Dr. Curtis Lowery, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Lowery said treating a woman with a high-risk pregnancy requires balancing the risks to the fetus with the risks to the mother, a balance that he said is “not black and white.”

“This bill does not adequately protect the physician’s ability to interact with a patient. This law will be enacted and then the judicial system will begin to enforce that law, and the doctors who are trying to make appropriate decisions about the pregnancy can be convicted of being a felon,” he said.

The bill advances to the House. Rapert told reporters he was confident it would pass there.

Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Thursday that the governor would sign Wilkins’ bill but that “he says he’s got concerns whether (Rapert’s) bill is constitutional because of the viability issue, which even with the amendment from basically six weeks to 12 weeks he doesn’t think is resolved.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has said states cannot deny a woman’s right to an abortion before a fetus becomes viable, or able to survive outside the womb. Doctors generally consider a fetus to be viable at 23 weeks.

If Rapert’s bill were to pass and be vetoed by Beebe, a simple majority vote in the House and Senate would be enough to override the veto.