Arkansas Democratic lawmakers discuss maternal and reproductive health policies at White House

Legislators from states with abortion restrictions met Wednesday; those from states with abortion access will meet Thursday

By: - June 14, 2023 5:47 pm

Karen Musick, right, shares anecdotes of Arkansans who have had abortions before the House Judiciary Committee on March 30, 2023. Musick spoke in favor of House Bill 1684, sponsored by Rep. Denise Garner (left), D-Fayetteville, to add an exception to the state’s abortion ban. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Four Arkansas state representatives participated in a discussion at the White House on Wednesday about the state of reproductive rights in the U.S. nearly a year after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that left abortion access in the hands of the states.

The 49 state legislators at Wednesday’s meeting came from 25 states that have taken steps to ban or restrict abortion since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision in late June 2022 that overturned Roe v. Wade. A Thursday meeting will involve 32 legislators from 16 states with persistent or expanded access to abortion over the past year.

Arkansas was one of several states with a “trigger law” that banned abortion in June 2022 almost immediately after the Dobbs ruling. The only exception to the state’s ban is to save the life of the mother in a “medical emergency.”

Democratic state Reps. Ashley Hudson of Little Rock, Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff and Nicole Clowney and Denise Garner of Fayetteville were at the White House on Wednesday.

Hudson, Clowney and Garner all introduced bills in the Legislature earlier this year that would have added exceptions to Arkansas’ abortion ban.

  • Hudson’s bill would have allowed child victims of incest to obtain abortions.
  • Clowney’s bill would have allowed physicians to induce labor in rare cases when a fetus has a health condition “incompatible with life.”
  • Garner’s bill would have expanded the law’s definition of a “medical emergency” to include the health of the mother.

All three bills failed in Republican-led committees.

The legislators at the White House on Wednesday discussed how to call attention to issues regarding reproductive rights, even in state legislatures that have little to no chance of passing certain bills, Hudson said in an interview.

She said she appreciated the opportunity to share ideas and experiences about “useful and progressive” policies and “what is working in some states and what wasn’t working” with lawmakers from outside Arkansas.

Arkansas Legislature saw wide range of maternal and reproductive health legislation in 2023

“It’s easy for us to get so engrossed in the happenings in our own state that we forget that there are so many different perspectives on this important issue,” she said.

Hudson sponsored a law signed in February that created support systems in Arkansas public schools for pregnant and parenting teenagers. Other states’ legislators told her the law might serve as a model for future bills in their states, which she found “really exciting,” she said.

The Arkansas Legislature saw a wide range of bills during the 2023 session addressing maternal and reproductive health care, with mixed results. The state’s abortion ban made prenatal and postpartum health care policies a higher priority for state leaders, Hudson and other legislators said in April after the session ended.

Arkansas has consistently had one of the nation’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy, child poverty and maternal mortality.

Hudson said state leaders should stop “chasing the title of being the most pro-life state in the country,” which Republican officials have touted since the abortion ban went into effect.

Hudson said some policies that would make Arkansas more “pro-life” did not pass the Legislature this year, such as a bill to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage in Arkansas from 60 days to 12 months after birth.

A provision in the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 gives states the option of this Medicaid coverage expansion. As of Wednesday, the vast majority of states have applied for this option to some extent; Arkansas is one of a handful that has not.

The Legislature also did not pass a bill that would have required presumptive Medicaid eligibility for pregnant Arkansans nor one that would have required the insurance reimbursement rate for all births in Arkansas to be equal.

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Policies that did become law included requiring Medicaid to cover depression screenings for women during pregnancy and long-acting reversible contraception for postpartum mothers. Another law will require all newborns in Arkansas to be screened for certain rare health conditions as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hudson said policies like these are necessary in light of the Dobbs ruling.

“Especially in states like Arkansas, where we continue to have these discussions and fight these battles over access to abortion… at the same time, we need to be looking at how to care for these women and children in the situation they’re in now,” Hudson said.

Flowers, Garner and Clowney could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Data visualization made with Flourish

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.