Nearly 2 years after bans approved, Arkansas lawmakers weigh more abortion restrictions



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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Nearly two years after approving a pair of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, Republicans in Arkansas' Legislature are weighing additional measures to make it more difficult for women to get the procedure.

A ban on the use of telemedicine to offer the abortion pill, cutting off public funding to Planned Parenthood and requiring more information given to women in person before they undergo the procedure are likely on the agenda for lawmakers next year.

The proposals follow a 2013 session where lawmakers approved two laws banning most abortions 12 and 20 weeks into a woman's pregnancy. The Republican led-Legislature enacted both bans, overriding vetoes by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. A federal judge has struck down the 12-week ban, a ruling the state is appealing.

Abortion opponents face an even friendlier environment next year, with Republicans holding an even larger majority in the Legislature. Beebe is leaving office in January due to term limits and is being succeeded by Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who has said he would have signed both abortion bans last year.

"There's still a lot that can be done," said Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life.

Mimms said her group's priority next year will be legislation banning the distribution of the abortion pill by telemedicine — a practice her group and GOP lawmakers refer to as "webcam abortions."

Sen. Missy Irvin, who introduced a similar proposal last year, said she plans to push for a ban in next year's session.

"It's about women's health and their safety and the safety of that procedure," said Irvin, a Mountain View Republican.

Planned Parenthood offers the abortion pill at its facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville, but has said it doesn't have any plans to use telemedicine to offer the medication in Arkansas. Supporters of telemedicine in other states have defended it as a safe and effective way, especially in rural areas where surgical abortions aren't readily available.

"Telemedicine is commonly used to provide psychiatric care, surgeries, geriatric care, and family medicine. These providers aren't being singled out for using technology to advance their medical care," said Angie Remington, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "Abortion is the only procedure that has been targeted by extreme groups whose intent is to restrict a woman's access to abortion."

Planned Parenthood is also likely to be targeted with legislation aimed at cutting off most public funding to the group. Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield said he'll probably introduce legislation similar to a measure approved by the Senate that barred abortion providers and entities that perform abortion referrals from receiving most grants. The measure stalled before a House panel last year.

Planned Parenthood, which receives federal grants for sex education, warned last year that Stubblefield's measure was even more far-reaching and a potential threat to public money that domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers and doctors receive if they refer women to abortion providers. The group repeated those concerns regarding possible similar legislation from Stubblefield.

Another measure being weighed by abortion opponents would expand the state's "informed consent" law requiring that women be provided information before an abortion.

Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council, said the conservative group wants the measure strengthened to require more information ahead of abortions. Sen. David Sanders, a Little Rock Republican, said he's looking again at whether to push for changes to the law requiring the information.

"I think there's room to create an environment where women will be given more information and better information so they can make a better decision about whether to have an abortion or not," Cox said.

Sanders filed legislation last year that would have required the information be provided in person and at least 24 hours before a woman has an abortion. Current law allows the information be given over the phone and only prohibits it from being given to women on the same day as the procedure. Sanders' proposal also would have expanded the information required to include a description of the abortion method and any medical risks associated with it.


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