LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday he'll sign into law legislation prohibiting insurers from covering most abortions in an exchange created under the federal health care law, as lawmakers advanced a separate measure banning the procedure 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
Beebe said he'd sign the restriction on abortion coverage moments after the Senate gave final approval of the legislation by a 25-9 vote. Beebe also stepped up his criticism of the 12-week ban that cleared a House panel vote later that day.
The coverage ban includes exemptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. The bill also allows abortion coverage through supplemental policies, but the bill's opponents say that option is not available in Arkansas. Beebe said he believes the legislation merely restates existing law banning public money for abortions.
"It doesn't really change the law," Beebe, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday morning. "It's already under the federal law, which the exchange is created by, that's already banned."
But opponents of the measure say that since separate riders for abortions aren't available in Arkansas, the proposal would effectively prevent women who buy insurance coverage through the exchange from purchasing policies using their own money that would cover abortions. Supporters of the measure say 18 other states have passed similar restrictions.
"I find it immensely surprising that a body that is supposed to look out for everybody and do the right thing, that something we afford ourselves we're not going to afford them because they have to buy on the exchange," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who voted against the measure.
The bill is among several new abortion restrictions that are gaining support in the Legislature after Republicans won control of the state House and Senate last year. Five Democrats joined with 20 Republicans to support the coverage ban.
The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed by a voice vote a separate proposal that would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
The bill was amended to ban abortions if a heartbeat is detected using an abdominal ultrasound and would not ban the procedure before 12 weeks. It includes an exemption for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
The original version of the bill by state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, didn't specify how a heartbeat would be detected and would have banned the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Opponents have said detecting a heartbeat that early would have required a vaginal probe ultrasound.
"We've listened to the other side and incorporated willingly the objections," Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, the House sponsor of the bill, told lawmakers. "The right to an abortion in the first twelve weeks is protected in this bill and these amendments."
Dr. Curtis Lowery, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told lawmakers that the bill would hamper a doctor's ability to manage complicated pregnancies and could also jeopardize the accreditation of the university's OB-GYN residency program. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education cited the program last year for not providing students with adequate surgical experience in abortions, he said.
"One of the requirements is that you provide adequate exposure to abortion training," he said after the hearing. "Even though you might not perform abortions, you might have to deal with complications from abortions or miscarriages, counseling patients, discussing issues with patients."
The Senate last week approved the ban. If it passes the House, senators must agree to the revised version before it reaches Beebe's desk. Beebe told reporters he believes the ban is unconstitutional even with the changes, but wouldn't say whether he'll veto it.
It only takes a simple majority to override a governor's veto in Arkansas. Republicans hold 51 of the 100 House seats and 21 of the 35 Senate seats.
"It's still bad," Beebe said. "I think it's unconstitutional. If it gets to me, then to a large extent I'll be guided by that."
If enacted, the measure would likely be the strictest abortion ban in the nation. North Dakota lawmakers are considering a "heartbeat" bill that would ban abortions at six weeks.
Opponents have said that the "heartbeat" ban goes against the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks. Beebe said that's the standard he is using when judging the bill.
"I haven't seen any medical testimony or anything that suggests that viability is not countered by the time limits on Rapert's bill, with or without vaginal probes or anything else for that matter," Beebe said. "The viability issue is the test, as I understand it."
Beebe said he's also concerned about another restriction pending before a Senate panel that would ban abortions at 20 weeks into a pregnancy. That measure does not include an exemption for rape or incest, and Democrats who have supported other abortion restrictions are pushing for that exception.
"Under its current form, it's constitutionally suspect, too," Beebe said.