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Arkansas House OKs abortion restrictions

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas House voted Monday to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest, sending the proposal to a state Senate that approved more stringent restrictions last week.

The House also voted to block insurers from covering abortions if they participate in the online marketplace created under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Abortion restrictions are easily winning legislative support in Arkansas this year after Republicans won control of the House and Senate in November.

The House-approved measures now go to the Senate, which on Thursday voted to prohibit most abortions if a heartbeat is detected. That measure would be the most stringent ban in the U.S., prohibiting abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said he’s still looking at the House-backed restrictions but that his office’s research suggests the “heartbeat” bill is unconstitutional. Opponents say it will invite lawsuits.

“Obviously, we don’t want to pass unconstitutional laws and end up in court costing taxpayers tons of money,” said Beebe, who stopped short of saying that he opposes the legislation.

The 20-week ban, which prohibits the procedure based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain at that point, was approved on a 75-20 vote. Unlike the six-week ban pending before a House committee, it does not include exemptions for rape or incest.

“If our constituents cannot trust us, their elected representatives, to defend the most basic and essential of human rights, that of life, how can they possibly trust us to have the wisdom and discernment to make appropriate decisions regarding all of the other daily issues that face us?” Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, told lawmakers before they approved his legislation.

Rep. Greg Leding, the top Democrat in the House, opposed the measure and noted it did not include exemptions for fetal conditions that were incompatible with life. He also argued it was unfair to victims of rape and incest.

“The case made for that exclusion is that a woman should have been able to make that decision early in her pregnancy. But what if that woman is a 12-year-old girl and she’s raped by a family member or friend and she’s too afraid to speak or at that young age is simply unaware that she’s pregnant?” said Leding, D-Fayetteville.

The other measure approved Monday would allow insurers participating in the health insurance exchange to cover abortions only in the case of rape or incest or to spare the life of the mother. The House approved it on a 77-15 vote.

The measure’s author, Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, argued it would prevent public money from going toward abortions — something opponents note is already barred by state and federal law. It would allow coverage for abortions through separate supplemental policies.

Twenty-four Democrats and the House’s sole Green Party member joined with 50 Republicans to support the 20-week ban, while 26 Democrats and the Green Party member supported the insurance exchange ban. Republicans hold 51 of 100 House seats.

The measures both head to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Though the Arkansas Legislature has considered abortion restrictions in recent years, most proposals haven’t made it to the governor’s desk under Democratic majorities. Beebe, however, has backed some abortion restrictions. Two years ago, he signed into law regulations on clinics that offer the abortion pill. In 2009, he signed legislation mirroring a federal ban on late-term abortions.

Abortion-rights supporters have said they’re all but certain to sue the state if the “heartbeat” ban becomes law. They say the proposal runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.

Opponents also argue the proposal is invasive because the only way to detect a heartbeat at six weeks is by using a vaginal probe.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, the sponsor of the “heartbeat” ban, said he hoped to bring his proposal before the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee before the end of the week. Democrats hold 11 of the 20 seats on that panel.

Rapert said he asked Beebe on Monday “to let the House fully deliberate this issue and let the merits of the bill stand on its own.”

Republican House Speaker Davy Carter said he’s also concerned about the constitutionality of Rapert’s bill but wouldn’t say whether he opposes it.

“I understand the governor has some constitutional concerns and he’s analyzing it. I am too,” Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters.

Bettina Brownstein, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said the group is also troubled by the restrictions approved Monday.

“They’re both unconstitutional, and I think they’re both cruel to women and families,” Brownstein said.


Associated Press Writer Michael Stratford contributed to this report