LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The Arkansas Senate voted unanimously Monday to criminalize the killing of a fetus from the moment of conception, which backers say will protect mothers but abortion rights advocates warn is aimed at further restricting the procedure in a state that already has the nation's most restrictive law.
The measure passed by the Senate 35-0 does not apply to legal abortions or acts by the mother, but would apply to criminal acts and wrongful death actions in civil court. Current law defines a 12-week-old fetus as an unborn child.
The bill was approved less than a week after the Republican-led Legislature enacted a ban on most abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy, overriding Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto of the measure. Abortion rights groups plan to sue the state in federal court over the ban, which Beebe has called unconstitutional.
Sen. Jim Hendren, who sponsored the criminal code change approved Monday, tried to separate his bill from the debate over abortion and said it was aimed at protecting pregnant women. Hendren, R-Gravette, sponsored the 1999 law that defined 12 weeks as the start of life for an unborn child.
"It's not to make a statement about the abortion argument," Hendren said. "It's to make a statement to criminals that they'll pay a heavy price when they do such horrible things to a pregnant woman."
Abortion rights advocates, however, say the laws are aimed at making a case for more restrictions on the procedure.
"They're intended to be used in the future to restrict women's ability to make decisions about their own reproductive issues and to put them on the same level with if not beneath the level of a fertilized egg," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.
Arkansas is among 38 states that have laws criminalizing the killing of a fetus, and at least 23 of those cover fetal homicide at the earliest stages of pregnancy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The state's 12-week abortion ban won't take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, which likely won't be until later this month or April.
Proponents of the 12-week abortion restriction frequently pointed to the definition of an unborn child in criminal code as justification for restricting the procedure that early. Beebe vetoed that law on the grounds that it contradicted the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion until a fetus could viably survive outside the womb. A fetus is generally considered viable at 22 to 24 weeks.
Another abortion ban that lawmakers enacted by overriding Beebe's veto — one which outlaws most abortions at 20 weeks — is already in effect.
The abortion laws are among several new prohibitions gaining support after Republicans won control of the House and Senate in the November election.
Page 2 of 2 - Hendren's bill passed without any debate and with the support of lawmakers who criticized the new abortion restrictions, including Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock. Elliott said she trusted Hendren's statement that his bill was not intended to make the case for future abortion restrictions.
"I take him at his word and so I assume that's the case that there's not some further agenda down the road," Elliott said.