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Arkansas’s Abortion Ban and One Man’s Strong Will

RightMarch March 12, 2013

Erik Eckholm at the New York Times reports:

The adoption by Arkansas last week of the country’s strictest abortion ban — at 12 weeks of pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat is typically detected — gave a new jolt of energy to a loose band of abortion foes who are pushing similar measures in several states.

Fetal heartbeat laws are already under consideration by legislatures in Ohio, Kansas and North Dakota, and have a good chance of passage in the coming year, their proponents believe, even though legal experts say they have little chance of surviving in federal courts.

Similar proposals are less far along in Kentucky, Mississippi and Wyoming.

“What happened in Arkansas will definitely encourage others to take similar action,” said Janet Porter, the president of Faith2Action, a Christian group in Ohio and an early proponent of fetal heartbeat laws.

Bryan Fischer, a spokesman at the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based in Mississippi, called the Arkansas measure “a milestone.”

The Arkansas law was designed by State Senator Jason Rapert, a Republican, who says he has no time for those who say it will prove legally futile, noting that the word abortion does not appear in the Constitution.

“Arkansas has made a significant statement,” Mr. Rapert, 40, a born-again Christian, said in an interview, adding that he had received scores of messages of support from activists and legislators around the country. “Hopefully we can awaken the nation.”

The heartbeat strategy has percolated over the past few years among activists frustrated at the slow progress against abortion rights. The bills under consideration in other states have not specified the 12-week threshold that Arkansas has adopted. Instead, as in Ohio, they mandate that doctors should detect heartbeats using “standard medical practice,” which they hope might halt some abortions even earlier than 12 weeks. But those activists are elated by Arkansas’s move.

Evangelical groups like the Family Research Council in Washington are among the enthusiastic promoters of fetal-heartbeat limits. But traditional leaders of the anti-abortion movement, like National Right to Life and the Roman Catholic Church, think such laws will quickly be overturned in federal courts, reinforcing the existing limit set by the Supreme Court that women have a constitutional right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy.

As political experts in Arkansas see it, the passage of the fetal heartbeat law became almost inevitable in November, with the Republican takeover of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

That is also when Mr. Rapert won a seat in the State Senate to represent this city just north of Little Rock. His victory was an especially resonant and personal one. His opponent, Linda S. Tyler, 64, a popular moderate Democrat, was the person he blamed most for blocking a more restrictive anti-abortion proposal the year before, when he was a freshman legislator.

The public health committee that Ms. Tyler then chaired in the House refused to advance his 2011 bill even after it had passed the State Senate. In the November campaign, he implied that Ms. Tyler was personally responsible for allowing more deaths of unborn babies.

“My opponent killed 10 pro-life bills,” Mr. Rapert said of Ms. Tyler in an interview at the Capitol on Friday.

“He characterized me as a far-left liberal,” Ms. Tyler recalled last weekend at her home in Conway. “But I feel I represent the conservative values in my district.”

Ms. Tyler, a former human resources executive and small-business owner, said that a majority of her committee members had declined to act on bills they regarded as unconstitutional. She said that she has never called herself “pro-choice” and that she had voted to ban late-term abortions. But in the end, she said, abortion should be a decision involving a woman, her family, her faith and her doctor.

The law will take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends in the coming weeks. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights have promised a rapid legal challenge; on the other side, Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm linked with Liberty University in Virginia, has offered to help Arkansas defend the law on a pro bono basis.

Interviews with Conway residents suggested that many were pleased to see Arkansas take the lead in curbing abortions.

“It may be unconstitutional, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Rodney Purdle, 40, a computer programmer and a Republican.

Janet Rhodes, 52, who works in oil-field services, said: “I’m pro-life and I was glad it passed. I don’t think it takes anything away from women.”

But Henry Thompson, 90, a retired truck driver who was riding an electric cart to shop at Wal-Mart, said that he remained an old-school Arkansas Democrat and that he opposed new abortion restrictions. “I think this decision should be between a woman and her doctor rather than be made by some fly-by-night politician,” he said.

Mr. Rapert said he learned of the fetal heartbeat strategy through his readings and discussions with the Arkansas Family Council, a Christian group.

In 2011, his first full year as a legislator, but from a different district, he won Senate approval for his heartbeat bill even though the Democrats still held a majority. But it died in Ms. Tyler’s committee. Then Mr. Rapert ran into a new roadblock. As the Democrats redrew legislative districts in keeping with census data, they tried to neutralize support for Mr. Rapert, whom some saw as too brash and extreme. To run again, Mr. Rupert had to face Ms. Tyler on her home turf in a largely new district.

“He was targeted in the redistricting,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway.

But Mr. Rapert was very much in tune with the state’s mounting anti-Washington, anti-Obama and anti-abortion sentiment. At a Tea Party rally in 2011, captured on video, he told an enthusiastic crowd: “We’re going to take this country back for conservatism. And we’re not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in!”

He later said that he had been talking about political, not racial, minorities.

Mr. Rapert, who runs an investment firm and a Christian missionary society, preached at local churches before the election, sometimes entertaining worshipers by playing “Amazing Grace” on his fiddle. He supports the tax cuts and other fiscal goals of the Tea Party, and has benefited from fliers and television ads paid for by national conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, financed by the Koch brothers, the oil executives and Republican power brokers.

Ms. Tyler charged that her opponent was “backed by shadowy out-of-state billionaires.”

“Even on Election Day, I fully expected to win,” she said. Mr. Rapert prevailed with 54 percent of the vote.

The largest anti-abortion groups prefer an incremental strategy that has resulted in hundreds of state laws to narrow abortion rights, like requiring women to have sonograms beforehand and imposing longer waiting periods.

Those groups are also pushing against Supreme Court rulings, though not as deeply as Arkansas has, by promoting bans on abortion after 20 weeks, limits that have passed in 10 states but are under challenge in federal courts.

Mr. Rapert said last week that while he would ultimately like to see Arkansas outlaw abortions from conception, he does not expect to reach for that any time soon. “I think we’ve done our duty for now,” he said.

But the day after the fetal-heartbeat bill was enacted, Mr. Rapert co-sponsored a bill designed to strip Planned Parenthood of all state and federal financing.

 

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