LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Abortion opponents in Arkansas see an opportunity to enact new restrictions, including a ban on the use of telemedicine to make the abortion pill available, with Republicans controlling both sides of the Legislature in next year's session.
Fresh off an election where Republicans won control of the state House and Senate for the first time in 138 years, GOP lawmakers and anti-abortion groups are now focusing on a handful of bills they believe have a better chance.
The proposals still face hurdles that make their passage far from a certainty. They include public health committees that Republicans don't control in either chamber and a focus on budget issues by legislative leaders. But abortion opponents say they're cautiously optimistic that the November election will mean a better climate for their proposals
"I will say that basically any opportunity now is more than any opportunity than we had in the previous session," said Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley.
Mayberry said he plans to re-introduce legislation next year that would ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain after that point. Mayberry's bill was one of 10 anti-abortion measures that failed to clear the House Public Health Committee during last year's session, and it's one of three measures that Arkansas Right to Life says it plans to push for in the legislative session that begins Jan. 14.
Some doctors contend that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, but the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it knows of no legitimate evidence showing a fetus can ever experience pain. The Arkansas attorney general's office last year opposed the measure, telling the panel that it was in conflict with established law and would likely be struck down as unconstitutional.
Rose Mimms, the head of Arkansas Right to Life, said her group is hopeful but still watching to see who is selected as the chair of the House panel. Democrats hold 11 of the 20 spots on the committee, and incoming House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, won't announce the panel's chairman until the session convenes in January.
"The chairperson has a great deal of power when it comes to moving bills through committee," Mimms said "If we get a good chairperson, then we'll be encouraged that we'll be able to get done this session what we weren't last session."
One of those measures backed by Mimms' group that was unsuccessful last year was a proposal that would have banned most abortions from being covered through the health insurance exchange that would be created under the federal health care law. The Senate passed the restriction last year, but the House committee tabled that proposal after it was amended to include exemptions for rape and incest. Supporters of the bill claimed the amendment was an effort to kill the legislation.
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, who sponsored the exchange legislation last year, will chair the Senate Public Health Committee in next year's session but said she doesn't know yet if she'll reintroduce the proposal. The committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Bledsoe, R-Rogers, said for now she's focusing on getting up to speed on the projected $138 million shortfall in the state's Medicaid program.
"I'm going to be very busy and I'm not going to take as many bills as I did last session," Bledsoe said.
The health exchange and 20-week restrictions are among three bills that Arkansas Right to Life is focusing on in petitions it is circulating among supporters urging the Legislature and Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, to back. The petition also urges the Legislature to pass a bill that would ban the use of telemedicine to make the abortion pill available.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said she plans on introducing legislation that would ban the process derided by abortion opponents as "webcam abortions," where a doctor would be able to consult with a faraway patient in a video teleconference, then unlock a container by remote control to release the pill.
Planned Parenthood offers the abortion pill at its facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville, but currently doesn't have any plans to use telemedicine to offer the medication in Arkansas, an official said. Supporters of telemedicine in other states have defended it as a safe and effective way, especially in rural areas where surgical abortions aren't available.
Irvin said she's worried that it would allow abortions in areas where a doctor may not be nearby.
"I just don't want a young lady to have a medical procedure where a physician is two or three hours away," Irvin said. "That's just a real concern for me."
Abortion opponents note that they've already seen limited success in restricting the procedure with Democrats controlling the state Legislature and the governor's office. Beebe last year signed into law a proposal placing new regulations on the clinics that offer the abortion pill and in 2009 he signed legislation that mirrors a federal law banning late-term abortions.
Murry Newbern, lobbyist and policy analyst for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said she hoped legislators would take heed from national election results that she said showed support for women's health issues and she hoped lawmakers would focus more on economic issues and jobs. She noted that abortion restrictions passed in other states have been the target of lawsuits. A federal appeals court is currently weighing whether to overturn a 20-week ban in Arizona similar to Mayberry's proposal.
"Any bill that puts a woman at risk to losing quality health care or jeopardizes a woman accessing the care she wants or needs, we're going to take very seriously," Newbern said.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo