Sep 8, 2022 - News

Local experts say abortion law makes pregnancy riskier

From left to right: Jill Wieber Lens, Nicole Clowney, Kathleen Paulson and Karen Sebold. Photo courtesy of University of Arkansas Education Association/Local 965

A Northwest Arkansas doctor is recommending that residents move out of state if they want to get pregnant.

What's happening: A panel of experts on Tuesday said the wording of Arkansas' newly enacted abortion law puts physicians and hospitals in tough positions and pregnant people at a higher risk of health complications and death.

  • The University of Arkansas Education Association/Local 965, an employee union, hosted the event at the Fayetteville Public Library. Watch here.
  • Panelists included Kathleen Paulson, gynecologist at the university's on-campus health center; Jill Wieber Lens, law professor specializing in pregnancy loss; and state Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville). Political science professor Karen Sebold moderated the discussion.

State of play: Doctors in Arkansas may only legally perform abortions to treat ectopic pregnancies, remove an already-dead fetus, "save the life or preserve the health of the unborn child" or "save the life of the mother." Otherwise, a doctor who performs an abortion can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and/or fined up to $100,000.

What it means: The vagueness of the exception "to save the life of the mother" and the criminalization of providing abortions means that doctors and hospitals have to get lawyers involved in treatment and worry about protecting themselves while juggling focusing on their patients, Lens said.

  • "How almost dead does one have to be before a doctor can legally intervene to save a person's life?" she asked rhetorically.
  • The language doesn't provide clarity for situations such as if the pregnancy is not yet causing a life-threatening emergency, but doctors expect it to, Lens said. If a fetus still has a heartbeat, but has stopped developing and won't survive, patients must wait to miscarry.

What they're saying: "When you're ready to start your family, move to a state that's protective of your reproductive rights," Paulson said.

  • "It's frightening. I would be afraid to start a family under the current circumstances because if I rolled into an emergency room with ruptured membranes at 17 weeks or my daughter did or someone dear to me, I could not trust that they would get the care that they needed in this state at this time," she said.

What to watch: Clowney said Democrats plan to introduce a bill next session that would change the "to save the mother’s life" exception to "care for the health of the mother." They will also introduce bills to allow abortions in cases of rape, incest or lethal fetal anomaly, meaning the baby will not be born alive.

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