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Arkansas lawmakers approve toughest abortion limits in nation

AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is interviewed at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday, March 4, 2013, after vetoing legislation that would have banned abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Arkansas' House of Representatives on Wednesday rejected the governor's veto of a controversial bill that would make abortions illegal after 12 weeks of pregnancy, thus setting up the most restrictive ban on the procedure nationwide.

The House vote of 56-33 followed Senate approval on Tuesday to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of SB 134, or the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act, which enforces a ban on abortion earlier in pregnancy than any other state now does.

Moments before the vote, Rep. Ann V. Clemmer, who said she was pro-life, told fellow representatives they should give the right to be born to babies in Arkansas and that life was “to be protected not only by a third party but from the mother herself.”

The state already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S. after the Republican-led Legislature last week overrode Beebe's veto of a similar bill that set the legal abortion threshold at 20 weeks' gestation — two to four weeks earlier than most states.

That law took effect immediately but the new measure won't until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns in mid-May.

Under the new measure, a medical professional would be banned from performing an abortion on a woman who is 12 weeks or more pregnant and where a fetal heartbeat has been detected (women seeking an abortion would have to undergo an exam of the fetus to see if there is a detectible heartbeat). Cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is endangered, are among those exempt from the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the law imposed the most severe ban in the country and the strictest limit on the procedure since the U.S. territory of Guam tried to halt all abortions in 1990. The group “will challenge this dangerous and unconstitutional law in court,” the group’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, said in a statement.

Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said before the vote that it was an “unconstitutional and grotesque invasion” into private medical decisions.

“It’s a power grab by politicians. They are just looking to intrude on and take away a decision that is really for a woman and her family and her doctor, and that is true as a constitutional matter. It’s also true as a moral matter and as a matter of public health and just what’s right,” she said. “This is not a decision for politicians to make.”

The Supreme Court has said viability of a fetus has to be left up to doctors, Camp said, adding that it was unconstitutional for state legislatures to set a number of weeks for when abortion could be banned.

Beebe, a Democrat, said in his veto letter on Monday that the “adoption of blatantly unconstitutional laws can be very costly to the taxpayers of our state,” and that Arkansas’ “interest in protecting fetal life is simply not strong enough at such point to trump the constitutional rights of the mother.”

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Beebe, said Wednesday after the vote: "The governor made his case very plainly in his veto letter, laid out the reasons why we feel the bill’s unconstitutional, and now it looks like it will be up to the courts to make the final decision.”

Women who want to end a pregnancy face a growing number of roadblocks in many parts of the country 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many state restrictions on abortion with Roe v. Wade.

Last year, 19 states enacted a total of 43 provisions limiting access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that aims to advance reproductive health and abortion rights. While that was half the number that went into effect the previous year, it was the second-highest number since 1985.

Related:
Arkansas governor vetoes ban on abortions after 12 weeks

40 years after Roe v. Wade, more states restricting abortion

NBC News’ Tracy Connor contributed to this report.