The Arkansas State Senate voted 27-7 on Monday to pass Senate Bill (SB) 6, a controversial near-total abortion ban sponsored by Faulkner County’s Sen. Jason Rapert.
In prolonged debate ahead of Monday’s final floor vote, senators on both sides of the aisle spoke for and against SB6, with newly-minted independent and recent outcast of the Republican Party, Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette, voting present in Monday’s vote. Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana joined his Democratic senate colleagues and voted against SB6.
SB6 is almost identical to a “trigger bill” the Arkansas Legislature passed in 2019 which Rapert also sponsored. The trigger bill paved the way for a near-total abortion ban immediately following a hypothetical Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of abortion.
The difference between the two bills, however, is that SB6 would go into effect now, before a potential Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Rapert’s bill would enforce a ban on almost all instances of abortion, except in cases where the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. The sticking point for some senate Republicans who opposed all or some portions of SB6, however, came in the fact it doesn’t include some notable exemptions: rape and incest.
In his comments on the floor ahead of Monday’s vote, Hendren spoke on his opposition to the lack of rape or incest exemptions in SB6, and noted he is staunchly pro-life. Hendren said he considered proposing an amendment for SB6 that would’ve included those exemptions, but he decided against it to spare his pro-life colleagues from having to explain their opposition to SB6. He added that the vast majority of previous pro-life bills passed in the Arkansas State Legislature, many of which he supported, included rape and incest exemptions.
“In [SB6], we’re going to tell a 12-year old rape victim that because we believe so strongly in the ‘right-to-life,’ [the victim] is going to have to carry [her pregnancy] to term, regardless of the consequences on [the victim], [her] family or [her] life,” Hendren said.
Sen. Missy Irvin, a Republican of Mountain View, also spoke against certain aspects of SB6 in her own speech on the senate floor and cited personal familial experience in her request for rape and incest exemptions in SB6.
“There are women in this state who feel very strongly about [rape and incest exemptions in SB6],” Irvin said. “I shared with [the senate] two years ago that I have stood in the shoes of someone who had an unplanned pregnancy. And I hug my daughter every day because I made that choice. I know how [that choice] feels. Sen. Rapert [does not] know how that feels.”
Despite her request that Rapert pull SB6 down and add rape and incest exemptions, Irvin voted to approve the bill in the final floor vote after a delayed decision.
Democrats also voiced their opposition to SB6, both the bill itself and the lack of rape and incest exemptions.
Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock said SB6 was “bad enough” in its current state, but would be “far worse” without amendments which outlined exemptions for rape and incest.
Fellow Little Rock Sen. Clarke Tucker voiced his outright opposition to all of the bill’s contents, with or without rape and incest exemptions.
“Let’s stand together on policies that [the senate] can universally agree with,” Tucker said. “[Policies] that empower women and show them the respect and trust that they deserve. [Policies] that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and medical problems people have that lead to abortions.”
In his comments on the floor of the senate and in an interview with the Log Cabin on Tuesday, Rapert voiced his opposition to the addition of rape and incest exemptions in SB6, citing the fact multiple pro-life organizations, including Arkansas Right to Life, have endorsed SB6 as it currently stands without rape and incest exemptions. Rapert also reiterated his Monday comments on the senate floor to the Log Cabin, stating that his bill still allows for the use of emergency contraceptives, like “Plan-B,” and the IUD.
Rapert also criticized Hendren’s remarks in his interview with the Log Cabin, noting the fact that Hendren co-sponsored SB149, the trigger bill the legislature passed in 2019 which is almost identical to SB6. Rapert said he believes Hendren’s opposition to SB6 had to do with “political reasons” that came in the aftermath of his resignation from the GOP last week.
In general comments about Monday’s vote, Rapert said the vote was the “boldest” pro-life stance any state senate in the country had taken, and cited organizations, including Americans United for Life, which had ranked Arkansas as the No. 1 pro-life state in the country.
Rapert also shared a story he wrote on his website, Holy Ghost Ministries, to the Log Cabin about an encounter he had with a Conway woman in a local restaurant who told him his legislation, the heartbeat bill the state passed in 2013 which required abortion providers to inform pregnant women if their fetus had a heartbeat before performing an abortion, saved her adopted son’s life. The child, whose biological mother was a victim of rape, wasn’t aborted because the mother heard the child’s heartbeat. The woman decided to carry the child to term following the discovery and put the newborn baby up for adoption.
“[Democrats] run away from the humanization of babies,” Rapert said.
In additional comments, Rapert confirmed to the Log Cabin that a primary aim of SB6 is to force the Supreme Court to reconsider its previous rulings on the constitutionality of abortion and characterized his efforts to pass SB6 as “the will of the people.”
Rapert said he couldn’t be completely confident any potential Supreme Court ruling on his bill or others like it that have passed other state legislatures would hold up to the court’s scrutiny.
“I never would’ve imagined abortion would have been ruled constitutional [originally],” Rapert said.
Despite that, Rapert said the time for SB6 and other legislation like it is now.
“[The present time] is the best opportunity in 48 years to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Rapert said.
SB6 is the cementing piece of Rapert’s work over the past decade to pass pro-life legislation in Arkansas. In his comments on the senate floor on Monday, Rapert said as much, noting that SB6 could be the final pro-life bill he could bring forward to the senate body. With his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor in 2022 set, Rapert said he hadn’t thought much about if his senate legacy is directly tied to the pro-life legislation he’s sponsored over the years. He, however, did say that he stands by his commitment to the second principle of the Arkansas Republican Party: “the sanctity of life.”
Whether Rapert’s bill stands up to the scrutiny of the court system, which it is almost guaranteed to face if SB6 passes the Arkansas House of Representatives and receives Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s signature, remains to be seen.