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Commission recommends design for ‘monument to the unborn’ at Arkansas Capitol

The Arkansas Legislature wrapped up a three-day special session focused on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's tax cut proposal on Thursday.
Michael Hibblen
Little Rock Public Radio
A "monument to the unborn" was approved by Arkansas lawmakers this week.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A panel on Tuesday voted to recommend a living wall of flora and fauna be constructed on the Arkansas Capitol grounds as a “monument to the unborn” in accordance with a new state law.

Approved by the Legislature in March, Act 310 authorizes the secretary of state to decide where to place “a suitable monument commemorating unborn children aborted during the era of Roe v. Wade.”

One of two proposals submitted by artist Nilda Comas.
Courtesy photo
One of two proposals submitted by artist Nilda Comas.

Abortion has been illegal in Arkansas, except to save the life of the mother, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin in November rejected ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment intended to ensure a limited right to abortion in the state.

The Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission, which Act 310 directs to oversee the selection of an artist and monument design with input from pro-life groups in Arkansas, on Tuesday selected the living wall proposal from nine submissions received in September.

Tony Leraris, who expressed his frustration with the commission’s task, was the sole member to verbally abstain from voting. Leraris said Capitol monuments should be for military and government-related things. However, Leraris said he “could live with” the commission’s recommendation because the wall was the “most tasteful” of the designs, many of which he “found repulsive.”

“Personally, I just don’t know how you tastefully immortalize an aborted fetus…I just find the whole subject matter almost unspeakable and to think that we’ve got to put a monument up on the Capitol grounds to immortalize this…I just can’t see that this subject matter is something that we need to be doing,” Leraris said.

Rendering of a monument proposal submitted by Erik Bootsma and Andrew Wilson Smith.
Courtesy photo
Rendering of a monument proposal submitted by Erik Bootsma and Andrew Wilson Smith.

Proposed designs included a large sculptural monument conceived as an empty tomb, a bronze statue of a blindfolded baby and a monument that incorporates facts about the thousands of children in the foster care system.

“As much as I’m not in favor of any of this, I do have to say that of what I’ve seen, [the living wall] is the least offensive to me,” Leraris said. “I mean when I saw the crypt and I saw that umbilical cord coming out of the ground with a baby in it, I just thought, it’s not going to take me much to throw up.”

Commissioner Beth Gipe voted for the living wall and said if the commission had to make a selection, it should “at least be beautiful and not tragic.”

“It’s the least offensive if we have to answer this charge,” Gipe said.

Arkansas artist Lakey Goff proposed the living wall. In an email to the secretary of state’s office, Goff pointed to a similar installation at Liberty Park, which overlooks the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and said “living walls are healing, innovative and inspiring.”

The Living Wall at Liberty Park in New York City is 25 feet high and holds more than 22,000 plants.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
The Living Wall at Liberty Park in New York City is 25 feet high and holds more than 22,000 plants.

The commission voted to recommend the living wall to Secretary of State John Thurston, who will make the final decision. The committee discussed a large concrete structure west of the Capitol that houses HVAC units as a potential spot for the monument and agreed to speak to a groundskeeper about other possible locations.

The state will not use public money to construct the monument because Act 310 established a trust fund to raise money via gifts, grants and donations. A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office said they had not received any notice of deposits as of Tuesday.

The commission’s next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 13, 2024.

Monument controversy

The bill creating the new “monument to the unborn” faced bipartisan opposition as it worked its way through the Arkansas Legislature in March. In the House, Reps. Steve Unger (R-Springdale) and Jeremiah Moore (R-Clarendon) joined 17 of the chamber’s 18 Democrats in voting against the bill.

Unger and Moore both told House members they staunchly oppose abortion but believed a memorial monument would not be a good use of time and energy.

“Public memorials to our nation’s wars where we faced an external threat are right and proper,” said Unger, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. “A memorial to an ongoing culture war where we seem to be shooting at each other is not.”

Act 310 was sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, who also co-sponsored a 2015 law authorizing the construction of a 10 Commandments monument on Capitol grounds.

Less than 24 hours after the 10 Commandments monument was erected in 2017, a mentally ill man toppled it with his vehicle. A new monument, protected by concrete bollards, was erected in 2018 and is still standing.

Several groups quickly filed federal lawsuits for the removal of the monument, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government entities from favoring an establishment of religion.

The lawsuits were combined into one suit and are ongoing.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.