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Two groups spar over abortion legalization amendment

Katie Rhodes gathers signatures at a Little Rock restaurant.
Josie Lenora
Little Rock Public Radio
Katie Rhodes gathers signatures at a Little Rock restaurant for a proposed amendment to partially legalize abortion in Arkansas.

People who believe abortion should be legal in Arkansas are almost out of options. For those seeking the procedure, it can feel like the state has stacked every odd against them.

Abortion is only available in a narrow handful of circumstances. Most legislators are pro-life, and anti-abortion groups have consistently ranked Arkansas the most pro-life state in the country.

But there is a group working to legalize abortion in the state. They call themselves Arkansans for Limited Government. And for volunteer Katie Rhodes, this activism work is like holding on to a life raft in the middle of a wide ocean.

“What I would like people to know in Arkansas is that no one is coming to save us,” she said.

Rhodes is standing outside of a Little Rock restaurant on a clear evening, hoping people will sign her petition.

Her table is adorned with pamphlets. The titles say things like: “What Does the Bible Say about Abortion?” and “Don't Like Abortions? This Is For You.”

“People like to say ‘I don't believe in abortion,’” she said. “They say ‘I’m against abortion.' That’s great, don't get one.”

Rhodes believes abortion is healthcare, that these decisions should be made with the help of a doctor, and that women shouldn't have to leave the state to get the procedure. She called the amendment “the fight of her life.”

Signing the petition doesn't automatically make abortion legal; it just puts it on the ballot for voters to decide. And even if it does end up on the November ballot, and most people vote yes, it wouldn't make abortion legal in every case. The amendment just raises the cut off date to the 18th week of pregnancy.

Pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union have backed off supporting the amendment, feeling it doesn't go far enough to make abortion more accessible.

Meanwhile, opponents of the amendment are calling it deceitful. That includes Erin Hogan from the Family Council, a Little Rock-based pro-life group.

“Their name alone speaks quite a bit,” she says. “Arkansans for Limited Government, they’re trying to portray this as a way to limit government, and they don't want to talk about abortion being legal all the way up until birth.”

This is something opponents of the amendment say a lot; that the amendment “legalizes abortion until birth.” And it’s partly true, but only on a technicality.

The amendment has four exceptions allowing the procedure at any time until delivery. One is if a physician has a “good faith medical judgment abortion services are needed.” For Hogan the current law is plenty to protect women.

“Arkansas’ current abortion law has the exception already on the books,” she says. “So right now it's abortion is prohibited except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.”

But some say that the current language is too vague. Pro-choice groups are concerned that physicians won't be able to make safe medical calls out of fear of litigation or prosecution.

Hogan is part of the growing movement called “Decline to Sign.” They are asking people not to put their signature on the petition. The group has brought in prominent anti-abortion groups like Arkansas Right to Life and the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock.

Those who oppose the amendment, who believe life begins at conception, that abortion is murder and always wrong, are proud to live in a state so rooted in keeping it illegal. Hogan says “the people of Arkansas have spoken.”

“This has been a long debate,” she says. “It's been a long process and I really just think the abortion issue is settled here.”

The signature gathering event was a calm affair. But, Decline to Sign often shows up to signature events as an act of counter protest. Rhodes, the pro-choice advocate, says they're not violent, just loud and confusing.

“And it's definitely hurting us in small towns where they show up, because people are too scared to come sign or they see all their signs and they think that this is a right to life event.”

Hogan from the pro-life Family Council has not joined these counter demonstrations, but she says hundreds of people support the cause across the state.

“I think it's all been very respectful and cordial,” she said. “We live in a free society where we should be able to have free and cordial dialogue on these difficult issues we may disagree on.”

Arkansans for Limited Government has to collect just over 90,000 signatures from 50 different counties to put the amendment on the November ballot. They have until July.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.