Ark. governor says he'll OK abortion coverage ban

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Thursday he'll sign into law a ban on insurers covering most abortions in an exchange created under the federal health care law, but he stepped up his criticism of two other abortion restrictions lawmakers are considering.

Beebe said he'd sign the restriction on abortion coverage moments after the Senate gave final approval of the legislation by a 25-9 vote. Lawmakers also are weighing whether to pass the strictest abortion ban in the nation.

The coverage ban includes exemptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. The bill also allows abortion coverage through supplemental policies, but the bill's opponents say that option is not available in Arkansas. Beebe said he believes the legislation merely restates existing law banning public money for abortions.

"It doesn't really change the law," Beebe, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday morning. "It's already under the federal law, which the exchange is created by, that's already banned."

But opponents of the measure say that since separate riders for abortions aren't available in Arkansas, the proposal would effectively prevent women who buy insurance coverage through the exchange from purchasing policies using their own money that would cover abortions. Supporters of the measure say 18 other states have passed similar restrictions.

"I find it immensely surprising that a body that is supposed to look out for everybody and do the right thing, that something we afford ourselves we're not going to afford them because they have to buy on the exchange," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who voted against the measure.

The bill is among several new abortion restrictions that are gaining support in the Legislature after Republicans won control of the state House and Senate last year. Five Democrats joined with 20 Republicans to support the coverage ban.

Beebe, however, said he's concerned about two other abortion bills pending in the Legislature but stopped short of saying whether he'll veto them if they reach his desk. Beebe said legislation that would ban most abortions if a heartbeat is detected still has constitutional problems, despite an amendment easing the restriction.

The bill, which was expected to go before a House committee Thursday, is being changed to ban abortions if a heartbeat is detected using an abdominal ultrasound. That would ban abortions as early as 10 weeks into a pregnancy. It includes an exemption for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

The original version of the bill by state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, didn't specify how a heartbeat would be detected and would have banned the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Opponents have said detecting a heartbeat that early would have required a vaginal probe ultrasound. The Senate last week approved the ban.

"It's still bad," Beebe said. "I think it's unconstitutional. If it gets to me, then to a large extent I'll be guided by that."

Opponents have said that the "heartbeat" ban goes against the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks. Beebe said that's the standard he is using when judging the bill.

"I haven't seen any medical testimony or anything that suggests that viability is not countered by the time limits on Rapert's bill, with or without vaginal probes or anything else for that matter," Beebe said. "The viability issue is the test, as I understand it."

Beebe said he's also concerned about another restriction pending before a Senate panel that would ban abortions at 20 weeks into a pregnancy. That measure does not include an exemption for rape or incest, and Democrats who have supported other abortion restrictions are pushing for that exception.

"Under its current form, it's constitutionally suspect, too," Beebe said.

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