The 92nd general assembly of the Arkansas State Legislature convened Jan. 14 and can be summed up, for now, in one word: calm. But, the Diocese of Little Rock will continue to be a watchdog, advocating for necessary causes.
“I’ve been watching for bad bills, what I would characterize as bills that run counter to the interest either of the Church or of the common good,” said Patrick Gallaher, executive director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas.
There are, however, some notable bills that have been filed dealing with pro-life causes, including greater access to contraceptives and prohibiting abortions for unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome.
It’s important for the Church to watch legislation that runs contrary to the dignity of all human life. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law Jan. 22 allowing late-term abortions, up to a baby’s due date if the mother’s health is endangered.
“That’s just heartbreaking,” said Catherine Phillips, director of the diocesan Respect Life Office, adding it’s important to be aware of “anything that would promote abortion certainly, but also anything that’s contrary to the teaching of the Church. You know our ministry and our mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ which is the life affirming Gospel. Anything that undermines human dignity is of concern to us.”
One of the top bills this session is HB1164, by Rep. Aaron Pilkington, allowing pharmacists to dispense oral contraceptives without a prescription.
“As it is presently drafted, I find it highly objectionable,” Gallaher said.
There are multiple concerns regarding the legislation, including the word “shall,” which is a word of command in legal terms, in the sentence “A pharmacist who provides oral contraceptives … shall,” which goes on to direct in part, “Either dispense the oral contraceptives or refer the patient to a pharmacy that dispenses the oral contraceptives as soon as practicable after the pharmacist determines that the patient should receive the oral contraceptive.”
“It deprives the pharmacist of any kind of leeway in making a decision. It deprives the pharmacist of his or her rights of conscience,” Gallaher said.
Pointing to Arkansas Code 20-16-304, from 2012, Gallaher said, “those rights of conscience are protected … and that statutory section gives a right to refuse to provide procedures, supplies, information regarding contraceptives specifically to pharmacists and other healthcare providers … This bill is inconsistent with Arkansas law.”
Though advocates often say access to contraceptives will reduce abortions, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides statistics from the Guttmacher Institute that state “48 percent of women with unintended pregnancies and 54 percent of women seeking abortions were using contraception in the month they became pregnant.”
Without a doctor prescribing the medication after a thorough examination, it can also open the patient up to immediate health complications and side effects, which have been associated with breast cancer, Gallaher said.
“In this bill it would seem that anyone 18 or over could walk up to a pharmacist and purchase oral contraceptives. Not just the user of the oral contraceptives. A 23-year-old man who had been grooming a 13-year-old girl could buy the contraceptives and provide them to that girl,” Gallaher said. “A procurer of women for the sex trade, a pimp, could procure the oral contraceptives to maintain his string of prostitutes.”
Phillips said contraception risks the “the physical, emotional, and certainly the spiritual wellbeing of young girls, women.”
“We would far rather see efforts that promote abstinence education for those who are not married and Natural Family Planning for married couples,” she added.
Sen. Trent Garner filed SB2 and SB3, prohibiting abortion for an unborn child diagnosed with Down syndrome and additional reporting requirements by facilities and physicians who provide abortions in the event of complications.
During the last legislative session, a ban on gender-based abortion was passed.
“This law is a class of laws that recognize the uniqueness of an unborn child and requires a woman who is undergoing an abortion to essentially justify it and prohibits abortion for certain specific reasons,” Gallaher said. “… You look at Down syndrome statistics — Iceland is very proud of the fact that 100 percent of the babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. In the UK and in France, its well over 90 percent. In the United States it’s pretty close to 90 percent. If you’ve ever known a Down syndrome kid, they’re not disposable human beings.”
Regarding the reporting of abortion complications, those include “shock, uterine perforation, cervical laceration, hemorrhage, aspiration or allergic response, infection, sepsis, death, incomplete abortion, damage to the uterus and an infant born alive after an abortion,” the bill stated. Gallaher said in the past three legislative sessions, various reporting requirements have been passed into law for abortion facilities.
“Previously it was the Wild West; abortion facility licensing was favorable to the facilities and wide open in Arkansas,” he said. “At one time, the licensing standards for our adoption agency were much stricter than for an abortion facility, even today there are some aspects” that are more stringent.
The nonprofit Arkansas Right to Life plans to submit a bill during this session that would further extend the requirements in the already passed Women’s Right to Know Law regarding sharing information about abortion pill reversal. If a woman takes a pill to induce an abortion, rather than merely telling them it can be reversed, the nonprofit wants facilities to provide women with a toll-free number and website, along with instructions on what to do to reverse it, said executive director Rose Mimms.
Arkansas Right to Life is pursuing an amendment to the Safe Haven Law, passed in 2001, that allows babies up to 30 days old to be surrendered at 24/7 staffed fire stations and volunteer fire stations. The new amendment, SB168, is proposed by Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and in the House by Rep. Rebecca Petty. Currently, the law allows a mother to give her child to a person at any hospital emergency room or law enforcement agency in Arkansas. As long as these requirements are met, a mother would not be charged with abandonment.
The nonprofit is also inviting Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes, to the state capitol to explain more about the possibility of allowing surrender locations to install the boxes, which allow parents to leave a child with complete anonymity in a safe space. Private donations would provide the $10,000 installation fees and no government money would be used, Mimms said. This would also require amending the current law.
“Infant abandonment happens in Arkansas,” Mimms said, adding that often “the child is found dead. We don’t want that happening.”
Making it easier to register to vote is also being proposed through HB1004 by Rep. Charles Blake, allowing automatic voter registration.
“Bishop Taylor has mentioned in the past that voting is an issue that he’s interested in,” Gallaher said, and this proposed bill would allow any government agency to provide voter registration. It allows voter registration at all government agencies, building upon the 1993 federal Motor Voter Act which allowed voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“So if you go down to the employment commission because you’re out of work or you’re looking for job re-training, one of the things they’d do is say are you registered to vote and offer voter registration there,” he said.
Allowing greater access to valid voter registration, particularly in a protected system such as the DMV’s REAL ID program, it would eliminate possible instances of voting across state lines if a person lives on a state border or voting in a number of counties after moving districts, Gallaher said.
The diocese will continue to monitor bills being filed this legislative session. The current deadline to file any legislation is March 11, though it can be extended.
“Poverty, homelessness, lack of adequate medical care, lack of education — these are all issues that involve the dignity of every human being, so they’re pro-life concerns,” Phillips said. “Although certainly the gravest evil is the sin of abortion and nothing else compares to that, it doesn’t mean we can ignore everything else.”
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