- Associated Press - Sunday, April 13, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s decision to appeal a ruling striking down Arkansas’ 12-week abortion ban isn’t just giving hope to conservative activists who want to preserve one of the strictest abortion laws in the country. It also could inject a new focus on abortion and other social issues into dozens of statewide and legislative races that had been focused more on health care, taxes and other matters.

McDaniel announced last week he would appeal U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright’s ruling against a law, approved last year, banning most abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy. McDaniel, a Democrat, said he did so after warning Sen. Jason Rapert, the Republican sponsor of the measure, about the “risks and costs associated with an appeal.”

“I agreed to do so as long as there would be no impact on the budget of the Arkansas State Medical Board, the defendant in this matter, should the state be required to pay attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs,” McDaniel said in a statement released by his office.

McDaniel’s decision re-opens a debate over abortion prohibitions that Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and many others in his party had criticized as unconstitutional - and it’s a debate that could continue through this fall’s elections. The 12-week ban and another measure banning most abortions at 20 weeks were enacted after the Republican-led Legislature overrode Beebe’s vetoes of them.

And it’s a debate that opponents of the ban are confident they’ll continue to win, at least in court.

“It’s a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money,” said Rita Sklar, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which sued over the 12-week ban. “It’s going to mean a bigger fat check in the ACLU bank accounts, which will enable us to fight for more people’s rights.”

Democrats used the measures to bolster their argument Republicans were overreaching in the state Legislature and more concerned about divisive social issues. Launching his gubernatorial bid last year, Democratic hopeful and former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross singled out the bills as signs that the Republican-led Legislature was attacking women.

“These were clearly nothing more than attacks on women,” Ross told reporters last year. “These were bills to give partisan legislators ammunition to use in their next campaign that, in litigation, is going to cost the state tens of millions of dollars. That’s tens of millions of dollars they could be spending on education and economic development.”

It’s a comment that drew criticism from the rival campaign of former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who dropped out of the governor’s race last summer, and Republicans who both noted that Ross had previously voted for federal legislation nearly identical to the 20-week ban Arkansas lawmakers adopted.

The debate over the abortion bans hasn’t been as prominent in the governor’s race between Ross and Republican hopeful Asa Hutchinson. The two former congressmen both face lesser known, underfunded rivals in the May 20 primaries but have been focused on each other and their expected general election matchup.

Instead of sparring over abortion or other social issues, Hutchinson and Ross have been touting their competing tax cut plans and pitching their own education initiatives.

The appeal could also play a role in the race for the Republican nomination for attorney general. The three GOP rivals for that post have been touting their anti-abortion credentials and say they believe life begins at conception. GOP candidates Patricia Nation, Leslie Rutledge and Patricia Nation vowed during a debate last week to defend the bans if they’re elected.

The debate could also provide a preview of what anti-abortion measures could go before lawmakers next year. Abortion opponents say there’s plenty left on their list of measures they want to try again. They include proposals to ban the use of telemedicine to provide the morning-after pill and efforts to cut off any public funding to Planned Parenthood.

“I believe you will continue to see my colleagues in the pro-life community continue to take measures to be sure we protect the lives of unborn children,” Rapert said.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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