UPDATE Panel eyes abortion ban, drug tests for jobless benefits


LITTLE ROCK — A House bill that would ban an abortion after 20 weeks, the point at which the legislation maintains a fetus typically is able to feel pain, headed for final consideration in the Senate with a committee’s endorsement Wednesday.

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee also considered a proposal to require the state to perform random drug tests on applicants for or recipients of unemployment benefits, but did not vote on the measure. The sponsor temporarily pulled it from consideration when a committee member asked how much it would cost to set up the program.

House Bill 1037, known as the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was amended in the committee to include exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The version that previously passed the House with 75 votes exempted only pregnancies that threatened the life of the mother or physical impairment of the mother.

“We have a compelling state interest to protect the lives of a child,” the sponsor, Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, told the panel, noting Amendment 68, which says “the policy of Arkansas is to protect the life of every unborn child.”

Amendment 68, approved by voters in 1988, banned public funding for abortions in Arkansas.

Mayberry also told the committee that a number of studies, including some done at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, had determined that a fetus can detect pain at 20 weeks.

Speaking against the bill, Dr. Janet Cathy, an obstetrics-gynecologist in Little Rock, said studies on fetal pain are inconclusive and there is no scholarly reviewed evidence proving when a fetus feels pain.

“We are about to put into law something that is not acceptable science,” she said.

Cathy also said any woman who receives an abortion at 20 weeks is doing so because of birth defects the baby might have. Such decisions about abortion should be left up to the expectant mother and her doctor, she said.

“I believe the state should not put itself in a position where it comes between me and my patient and my ethics,” she said.

Mayberry said his daughter, now 11, was diagnosed with spina bifida before she was born and that he and his wife choose carry her to term.

Also during the committee meeting, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, presented Senate Bill 38, which would require the state to conduct random drug tests on people applying for or receiving unemployment benefits. The bill would deny benefits to anyone who did not pass a drug test.

Results of the drug test could not be released or used as evidence in a criminal prosecution, Hutchinson said.

“If somebody is unable to pass … a drug test or drug screen, then I don’t think they can in good faith claim to be actively seeking employment,” Hutchinson said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked how much random drug testing would cost the state.

Hutchinson said he did not know and agreed to pull the bill down until a fiscal impact report can be completed.

The bill is opposed by the Arkansas Chapter of the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union. Representatives from those groups attended the meeting and were prepared to testify against the proposal but did not because the bill was pulled.