The Arkansas House of Representatives passed Senate Bill (SB) 6 by a 75-18 vote on Wednesday, sending a controversial near-total abortion ban to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk for his signature. SB6, sponsored by Faulkner County’s own State Sen. Jason Rapert as well as State Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville, is unlike previous bills brought forward in the past in that it includes no rape or incest exemptions.
Wednesday’s vote included multiple speakers who spoke for and against the legislation. Quoting much of the bill verbatim in her comments, Bentley said the Supreme Court’s previous decisions had little support from legal scholars and the American public.
State Rep. Joe Cloud of Russellville posed a question to the chamber members.
“If [other representatives] are OK with taking a life [through abortion], that is a very slippery slope,” Cloud said.
State Rep. Joy Springer spoke bluntly in her opposition to SB6, describing it as unconstitutional.
“Voting for [SB6] will take away a woman’s right to choose,” Springer said.
If SB6 receives the governor’s signature, abortions performed in the state will come with a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison and $100,000 in fines. Exemptions to SB6’s language only include abortions which are performed to save the life of the mother.
The house’s debate over SB6 began on Tuesday in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee in a near-unanimous vote which sent the legislation to the floor for Wednesday’s approval. Bentley laid out the reasoning for bringing SB6 forward: forcing a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of abortion.
“Unashamedly, I hope [Arkansas’ passing SB6] will be the start to ending abortion in America,” Bentley said.
She also alleged that scientists have proven that human life begins at conception.
“We know [a fetus] is not a blob of tissue,” Bentley said. “[A fetus] is a human being.”
Allan Parker, president of The Justice Foundation, spoke alongside Bentley at Tuesday’s meeting and described SB6 as a “loving solution.”
Before 20 members of the public who had signed up to comment on SB6 at Tuesday’s meeting were able to, State Rep. John Payton of Wilburn made a procedural motion to try to force a vote on the legislation before the public could comment. After pushback from fellow Republican State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, the members of the public signed up to speak were allowed to make two-minute statements on SB6.
As State Rep. Ashley Hudson of Little Rock pointed out in her comments on the floor on Wednesday, the idea that SB6 might force a reconsideration on the constitutionality of abortion by the Supreme Court might be folly. Multiple states are ahead of Arkansas in having passed near-total abortion bans that have already been challenged in the courts. And previous reporting has suggested that direct challenges to the constitutionality of abortion are unlikely to gain the traction that more indirect, procedural challenges to the Supreme Court’s previous rulings might offer.
It is also not certain that the governor will sign SB6 when it arrives on his desk. While both chambers of the Arkansas legislature will easily have the votes to overturn a hypothetical veto by the governor, the governor has yet to offer a clear statement on his line of thinking. At Tuesday’s coronavirus press briefing, Hutchinson said that he has consistently signed all pro-life legislation that has arrived on his desk, but added that the lack of rape and incest exemptions were notable.
For now, Rapert, Bentley and other pro-life politicians and citizens across Arkansas can celebrate. A noticeable applause erupted from the House Chamber in the moments following Wednesday’s vote. But, whether the governor signs it or not, with the near certainty that legal challenges will come up if it is signed into law, the debate over SB6 is far from over.
Shortly after the bill passed, the ACLU of Arkansas issued a statement about SB6.
“We’re disheartened to see a majority of legislators, who took an oath to uphold the Constitution, act so brazenly to undermine its fundamental guarantees,” the ACLU wrote. “At a time when so many Arkansans are facing financial hardship and personal loss from a global pandemic, it is especially reprehensible that so many lawmakers remain hellbent on a harmful crusade to intrude on people’s personal autonomy and force them to continue pregnancies against their will.
“This abortion ban is plainly unconstitutional and we stand ready to challenge it and any effort to block Arkansans from care or dictate their personal medical decisions. We will be seeing the state of Arkansas in court again.”
Staff Writer Kolton Rutherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.