Arkansas on Tuesday became the first state in 2021 to enact a near-total abortion ban – a bold step by abortion opponents seeking to renew challenges to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationally.
The court, which now leans conservative, has shown it is open to considering abortion restrictions, a perceived opportunity that many anti-abortion advocates have pushed lawmakers to pursue.
The Arkansas bill, SB6, bans providers from performing abortions “except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency,” and makes no exceptions for instances of rape, incest or fetal anomalies. Those found to violate the law could face a fine of up to $100,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
“I will sign SB6 because of overwhelming legislative support and my sincere and long-held pro-life convictions,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said in a statement. “SB6 is in contradiction of binding precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is the intent of the legislation to set the stage for the Supreme Court overturning current case law.”
The abortion law is slated to go into effect 91 days after the end of the Arkansas legislative session, which is currently set for May 3, according to Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the Senate bill.
But the future of the law is unclear. Meagan Burrows, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project, said that the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Great Plains intend to challenge the law.
Of the 11 so-called gestational bans – which bar abortions past a certain point in pregnancy – passed since the start of 2019, none have gone into effect after most of them have been blocked by judges. Those include a similar near-total abortion ban passed in Alabama in 2019 and an 18-week bill passed by Arkansas in 2019.
“The Supreme Court has about 20 bills in front of them that they could take up if they wanted to,” said Gloria Pedro, regional manager of public policy and organizing for Arkansas and Oklahoma at Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, the group’s advocacy arm. “So writing a bill that’s the equivalent of a demand letter to SCOTUS, it’s just impractical and a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.”
The bill’s supporters see the measure as a key stand on the issue that reflects the views of those in their state, welcoming the chance at spurring a court fight that could reverse Roe.
“We expect that it will be challenged,” Rapert said, adding that he is hopeful that the tenets of the bill compel the court to respond to “a very broad, widespread public outcry on the issue.”
Rapert denounced rape and incest but stood by the law’s lack of exceptions for the two crimes, saying, “How could we look at any human baby and say that they are not worthy of life simply because their birth was a result of a violent act.”
Arkansas already has several abortion restrictions in effect. Abortion seekers must receive an in-person warning from their providers 72 hours beforehand, including information on prenatal and neonatal care and child support services, to access the procedure. Abortions after 20 weeks are already banned in the state except in instances of rape, incest or life-threatening or other serious physical endangerment to the pregnant woman.
Ali Taylor – co-founder and president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, which organized opposition to the bill – emphasized the significance of existing restrictions. In conjunction with there being “only two clinics in the state, the economic devastation of COVID,” and other logistical barriers, Taylor said, “it’s already difficult for people to access abortion in Arkansas.”
Rose Mimms, executive director of the Arkansas Right to Life, characterized the bill as the next step forward for the state.
“We’ve been trying to save as many babies as we can passing the laws that we pass,” Mimms said. “We want to save them all and a ban on abortion, to prohibit abortion, to abolish abortion in Arkansas — the time has come. Let’s just do it. Let’s save all the babies.”
“Other states have tried it before, but we’ll just keep trying,” she said.
This story has been updated with additional information.