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Arkansas legislators file two bills related to abortion during Spring Break

Bottles of the abortion-inducing drug RU-486, which is used to medically induce abortions in a two-step process. Women take mifepristone (left), and days later, they take misoprostol.
Charlie Neibergall
Bottles of the abortion-inducing drug RU-486, which is used to medically induce abortions in a two-step process. Women take mifepristone (left), and days later, they take misoprostol.

Arkansas legislators filed two bills Wednesday morning pertaining to abortion, which is all but illegal in the state.

Arkansas has one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans, Act 180 of 2019, with the sole exception “to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.” The act went into effect in June 2022, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and left abortion access up to individual states.

House Bill 1684, filed by Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville), would add the health of the mother as an additional exception to Act 180, broadening the definition of a “medical emergency.” The bill was filed a day after Oklahoma’s Supreme Court loosened that state’s near-total abortion ban by allowing exceptions for the health of the mother.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1686 from Rep. Wayne Long (R-Bradford) would “prohibit chemical abortions” and create the Arkansas Chemical Abortions Ban Act, according to the one-sentence shell bill.

Long could not be reached for comment Wednesday about whether another bill is forthcoming. Garner also could not be reached for comment on her bill.

Long’s bill comes as a federal judge in Texas with a history of championing “religious liberty” is set to decide whether to ban the abortion drug mifepristone. Multiple anti-abortion groups challenged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone and want U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk to suspend and withdraw this approval.

Kacsmaryk heard the case on March 15 and said he would make a decision “as soon as possible.”

Limited options

Most abortions in the U.S. are done with both mifepristone and misoprostol. The latter is also used to treat ulcers and is not being challenged in court.

Dozens of clinics stopped providing abortion services last year in states that limited or outlawed abortion, and the clinics that still exist in states where abortion is legal face questions and challenges if Kacsmaryk orders mifepristone to be banned.

Additionally, the case has raised the question of whether courts even have the authority to suspend abortion medication.

Fourteen states have abortion bans, nine of which do not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest, including in Arkansas. The scarcity of options in those states have led some people seeking abortions to order pills from other countries.

Walgreens announced earlier this month that it would limit its mifepristone sales after 20 Republican attorneys general, including Tim Griffin of Arkansas, wrote to the retail pharmacy chain in February threatening legal action if they sold or mailed the drug in those 20 states.

“As Arkansas’ chief law-enforcement officer, it is my duty to uphold the law and protect the health, safety and welfare of Arkansans,” Griffin wrote Feb. 7. “Part of that responsibility includes ensuring that companies like yours are fully informed of the law so that harm does not come to Arkansans — both born and unborn.”

In a statement to States Newsroom this week, a Walgreens spokesman said, “We want to be very clear about what our position has always been: Walgreens plans to dispense Mifepristone in any jurisdiction where it is legally permissible to do so. Once we are certified by the FDA, we will dispense this medication consistent with federal and state laws.”

Other abortion bills

Garner’s bill is not the first this year to propose a new exception to Arkansas’ abortion ban.

Earlier this month, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee rejected a proposed exception to the state’s abortion ban for cases of fetal abnormalities “incompatible with life.” House Bill 1301, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville), would have allowed physicians to induce labor in rare cases when a fetus has a condition that prevents living beyond a few hours after delivery, if at all.

Rep. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock) filed House Bill 1670 last week, proposing an exception to the abortion ban in cases of incest. It will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee after Spring Break.

Overall, abortion has not been at the forefront of Arkansas’ legislative debates about hot-button social issues this year. Republican legislators have introduced and advanced several bills that would restrict the behavior of transgender Arkansans, including one from Long that would require school employees to address others by their given names and pronouns.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative faith-based advocacy group, has weighed in on Long’s pronoun bill and a law that initially targeted drag shows before being amended. The ADF is one of the organizations suing the FDA in the mifepristone case.

Representatives from the conservative Family Council spoke against House Bill 1301 in committee earlier this month and have testified in favor of the bills focused on transgender individuals, including Long’s pronoun bill. The group said Wednesday that Garner’s bill would “effectively legalize elective abortion” in Arkansas.

A handful of other bills related to abortion have been filed in Arkansas this year, and some have been taken up while others have been left alone.

The sole abortion-related bill that has become law so far this year is Act 310, which will create a “monument to the unborn” on state Capitol grounds, commemorating the estimated hundreds of thousands of abortions Arkansans had while Roe v. Wade was in place for almost half a century.

A handful of legislative Republicans voted against Act 310. Reps. Steve Unger (R-Springdale) and Jeremiah Moore (R-Clarendon) both told the House they believed the monument would be an overtly unkind gesture to abortion rights advocates in place of civil discussion about their differing views.

House Bill 1174 would charge abortion recipients and their doctors with homicide, and Senate Bill 261 would create tax credits for fetuses. Neither bill has been heard in committee since being introduced.

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.