FAYETTEVILLE -- Officials in both Benton and Washington counties will decide later this month what role, if any, county government has in the debate over reproductive rights.
The quorum courts in both counties have been presented with resolutions declaring the counties to be "pro-life" counties.
The Washington County Quorum Court is set to consider the resolution when justices of the peace meet July 15.
Benton County's justices of the peace have two resolutions with a slight difference in wording, but each making the same declaration. Benton County's Committee of the Whole will consider one or both of them when the panel meets July 20.
The resolutions quote from the Declaration of Independence, the Bible and the Arkansas Constitution to argue county governments have a duty "to protect the unalienable right to life of every person within their respective jurisdictions."
One of the Benton County resolutions also refers to Act 392 of 2021 as a source. The act affirms "the right of a municipality to declare the municipality a pro-life city" but makes no mention of county governments.
Act 392 says cities can use the "pro-life" designation in advertising and promotional materials, including signs and billboards, banners, signs, decals and other materials, place the "pro-life slogans on city vehicles and in municipal utility bills and other material used to communicate with city residents," declare "pro-life" observances and encourage schools and civic clubs to "promote the dignity of human life."
The act also allows cities to encourage local places of worship to "promote the sanctity of human life" and allows cities to erect monuments or memorials "to lives lost to abortion" and to establish cemeteries or other places "for the burial of the unborn and for memorials to those who have died in an abortion."
While the legislation addresses cities, counties have the authority to adopt resolutions. Chris Villines, executive director with the Association of Arkansas Counties, said no one contacted the association staff about any "pro-life" resolutions. Villines said as a resolution, and not an ordinance, "it is merely a statement of support or of opposition to an issue from the quorum court without the effect of enforcement."
Patrick Deakins, Washington County justice of the peace for District 5, introduced the resolution at the County Services Committee meeting June 28. The meeting drew an overflow crowd, with more than 60 people inside the room and more in the lobby.
Both opponents and supporters of the resolution expressed their views during the discussion, challenging statements made by Deakins and others who were recognized as speakers. Two people were removed from the room while the resolution was being discussed.
The resolution was sent to the Quorum Court by a vote of 4-1 with Evelyn Rios Stafford casting the lone "no" vote. Justices of the peace Sean Simons, Jim Wilson, Butch Pond and Robert Dennis voted for the resolution.
Deakins said the 2020 presidential election was one impetus for his introducing the resolution. He said President Donald Trump's administration was "willing to stand up for the rights of the unborn. Now, we have a different administration that is quite the opposite."
Deakins also said he's concerned money from the American Rescue Plan is "an effort to grow the influence of the federal government at the local level" and the money could be allocated to organizations promoting abortion.
Deakins said he wants the county to partner with groups and organizations offering support to women in choosing alternatives to abortion.
Stafford said she would like to have the justices of the peace consider the potential financial costs to the county if any additional steps are taken in support of the resolution similar to those listed in Act 392, and to explore possible areas of agreement before adopting the resolution.
"I think there are areas where the two sides could agree on things," Stafford said. "Currently, a lot of the energy on this issue is directed to restricting access. Instead of focusing so much on that, there are real policy steps the county could take to promote the lives of people in all stages of life."
Stafford said the county could look at ways of improving health care, including encouraging people to be vaccinated for covid-19. She said better access to affordable child care has been shown to reduce abortion, as do more adequate wages.
"We know that affordable child care reduces the need for abortion," Stafford said. "There are areas where the two sides should be agreeing."
Jess Kelsey, communications and digital strategist for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said Friday the group is still working on plans to open an office in Northwest Arkansas. The Planned Parenthood office in Fayetteville closed in July 2019. Kelsey said the group remains committed to offering services in Northwest Arkansas.
Kelsey said the resolutions being discussed offer nothing positive in considering the private medical choices of individuals.
"It's clear these resolutions are motivated by a desire to harass, intimidate and shame abortion patients and providers," Kelsey said. "Government -- at any level -- does not belong in people's private medical decisions.
"The state of Arkansas already has some of the worst health outcomes in the country," Kelsey said. "Blocking patients from preventive health care at Planned Parenthood will only harm Arkansans."
Joseph Bollinger, Benton County justice of the peace for District 7, introduced the first of the "pro-life" resolutions before that county's Quorum Court. Bollinger said his aim is to promote discussion. He said he has read about Arkansas being one of the most "pro-life" states in the country. At the same time, he said, he sees Arkansas ranks near the bottom among states in the rate of teen pregnancy and the mortality rate among pregnant women in minority populations.
Bollinger said those are some of the reasons he questions the idea of simply banning abortions.
"You can't just abolish abortion without addressing the reasons it exists," he said. "I'd like to see us work to come up with some substantive ways to address the issue."
Change of venue
Benton County’s justices of the peace may move to a larger meeting space for the July 20 Committee of the Whole meeting. Kurt Moore, committee chairman, said he expects a large crowd to attend the discussion of a resolution declaring Benton County to be a “pro-life” county. Moore said he has asked County Judge Barry Moehring and Sheriff Shawn Holloway about moving to the building at the county fairgrounds. The Quorum Court used space at the fairgrounds last year when resolutions declaring the county’s support for law enforcement and the Bill of Rights drew a crowd of more than 100 people.
Source: Benton County