By JOHN LYON
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
LITTLE ROCK — The sponsor of legislation to ban abortions at 12 weeks said Tuesday he would add more exemptions to address concerns raised about the measure.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said Senate Bill 134, titled The Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act, will be amended to include exemptions for medical emergencies and for fetal disorders that likely would be fatal for the child. The bill already includes exemptions to save the life of the mother or for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
The new exemptions "specifically would deal with many different fetal anomalies or fetal disorders, but specifically some of the most horrible that families have had to deal with, like anencephaly," in which a child is born without parts of the brain and skull, Rapert said.
He also said the bill also will be amended to remove criminal penalties for doctors.
In its current form, the bill would make doctors who violate the measure subject to a Class D felony charge, punishable upon conviction by up six years in prison. Rapert said the bill will be amended to make the only penalty a revocation of the doctor’s license.
"There were people that were for the bill but were a little uncomfortable with the felony language," he said. "I agreed with them that revocation of a license is a career ender for physicians."
Rapert has amended the bill before. As originally written, the measure would have required any woman seeking an abortion to undergo a test for a fetal heartbeat and would have prohibited the abortion if a heartbeat is detected.
The bill passed in that form in the Senate. It stalled in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee amid objections that it would require women to undergo an invasive trans-vaginal ultrasound and effectively would ban abortions at about six weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can first be detected.
Rapert agreed to an amendment stating that the bill would not ban abortions before 12 weeks and that the heartbeat test would be conducted via external abdominal ultrasound. The bill then passed out of the committee.
Rapert said Tuesday he had enough support in the House to get the bill passed without any further changes, but he learned that the bill needed to go back to the committee to correct drafting errors, so he decided to take the opportunity to offer a new amendment to address other concerns about the bill.
"We feel like that we definitely now have a bill that has even broader support than it did a few weeks ago when it came out of the Senate," he said.
Rapert said he expected the bill to be amended in the House Public Health Committee this week and to be on the House floor for a vote on Monday.
The proposed amendments do not address concerns raised by some, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, that the bill is unconstitutional because it would ban abortions before viability, or the point at which a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Doctors generally consider a fetus to be viable at 23 or 24 weeks.
Gov. Mike Beebe has said the bill appears to be unconstitutional but has not said whether he would veto it.
Another bill moving through the Legislature, HB 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, would ban abortions at 20 weeks — the point at which the bill contends a fetus can feel pain — except to save the mother from death or severe physical impairment. It contains no exceptions for rape or incest.
Mayberry’s bill has passed in the House but has not yet cleared the Senate Public Health Committee.