Proponents of Antiabortion 'Heartbeat' Laws See Ark. as Bellwether for Other States

March 12, 2013 — Arkansas' recent enactment of legislation (SB 134) that bans most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy is giving new momentum to a segment of abortion-rights opponents who see enactment of early abortion bans as an effective strategy for challenging Roe v. Wade, the New York Times reports (Eckholm, New York Times, 3/11).

The Arkansas measure prohibits abortion after 12 weeks if a fetal heartbeat is detectable, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest, to save a woman's life or when the fetus has a fatal disorder. Doctors who violate the 12-week ban would have their licenses revoked by the state medical board. The 12-week measure is slated to take effect 90 days after the Legislature ends its current session, which could be later this month or in April (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/11).

Push for Earlier Bans

While the Arkansas measure specifically sets the 12-week threshold, proposals in other states would ban abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat using "standard medical practice" -- which would be significantly earlier than in Arkansas.

According to the Times, abortion-rights opponents think they have a good chance of passing "heartbeat" legislation this year in Kansas, North Dakota and Ohio. Bills also are under consideration in Kentucky, Mississippi and Wyoming.

Legal Debate

The evangelical Family Research Council and other groups that embrace this approach to curtailing abortion rights see it as a way to jumpstart what they considered stalled progress in the antiabortion-rights movement.

However, traditionalists in the movement -- such as the National Right to Life Committee and the Roman Catholic Church -- have opposed such measures because federal courts are likely to strike them down, thus reinforcing the tenets of Roe. These groups prefer an incremental strategy to restricting access to abortion, such as mandating ultrasounds and waiting periods before the procedure. This approach has resulted in the enactment of hundreds of abortion restrictions at the state level (New York Times, 3/11).

New Ark. Law is 'Culmination' of States' Attacks on Abortion Rights, Editorial Argues

The Arkansas Legislature's recent enactment of a ban on most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy "is simply the culmination of a steady erosion of a woman's right to choose" since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, according to a Newark Star-Ledger editorial.

State lawmakers overrode Gov. Mike Beebe's (D) veto of the bill to implement the "toughest" abortion restrictions in the country, the editorial states.

"The Arkansas law should be struck down, but make no mistake, it is no outlier," the editorial continues. It notes that 43 states allow health care providers to refuse to perform abortions and only 17 permit the use of state funds to cover most abortions for Medicaid beneficiaries (Newark Star-Ledger, 3/11).