Nebraska lawmakers advance bill to vastly restrict abortion

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Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt addresses a crowd of about 200 people Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in the Nebraska state Capitol rotunda in Lincoln, Neb., during a rally to oppose a bill that would ban abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, which is generally around the sixth week of pregnancy. (AP Photo/Margery Beck)

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers advanced a bill Wednesday that would ban abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, which is generally around the sixth week of pregnancy and before most women even know they are pregnant.

Thirty-three lawmakers voted to end debate on the bill — just enough needed to set up an identical 33-16 vote to advance the bill. If just one other lawmaker had voted not to end debate, the bill would likely have been declared dead for the year. It must survive two more rounds of debate before the end of the 90-day session to pass.

The effort to pass the so-called heartbeat bill in the Republican-controlled state remains in question. An amendment floated by a Republican co-signer of the bill that would push the ban out to 12 weeks of pregnancy has yet to be considered. The amendment — and concerns expressed by at least one lawmaker who voted to advance the bill — could signal that a ban set very early in pregnancy may face pushback even from those who want further abortion restrictions.

Sen. Teresa Ibach of Sumner is also a co-sponsor of the bill, which includes exceptions for cases of rape, incest and medical emergencies that threaten the life of the mother. But she said during debate Wednesday that concerns shared with her by a couple of Nebraska doctors have given her pause on the current bill. She’s concerned, she said, that it doesn’t make allowances for fetal anomalies.

“I think we have to listen to both sides,” she said. “I do think the 12 week proposal would be a compromise.”

Ibach said she voted to advance the bill to allow for more debate on it this session.

The bill makes specific exceptions for ectopic pregnancies, IVF procedures, and allows for the removal of a fetus that has died in the womb. It also does not ascribe criminal penalties to either women who receive or doctors who perform abortions. Instead, it would subject doctors who perform abortions in violation of the measure to professional discipline, which could include losing their medical licenses.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, has been a vocal proponent of the bill and has said he will sign it if it passes.

Debate grew contentious at times Wednesday, with lawmakers for and against the bill accusing each other of spreading misinformation and using inflammatory rhetoric.

Supporters of the bill quoted Bible verses and extolled personal and religious beliefs that life begins at conception. Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings who is white, claimed that the legalization of abortion in the U.S. had its roots not in choice for women, but in a racist plot to “kill off the Black race.”

Opponents of the bill said it would strip women of their right to bodily autonomy, put them at financial and medical risk, and drive medical professionals and others concerned about abortion access out of the state. While the bill doesn't list any criminal penalties for women who get abortions and doctors who perform them, some lament that there is no specific language guaranteeing they won't face charges.

“To be honest, a lot of doctors have their resignation letters ready to go,” said Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who introduced a failed amendment to indefinitely postpone the bill.

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln referred to news reports in the past year of women and girls who were unable to get immediate abortion care following rapes or in the face of life-threatening complications because of their states’ abortion bans.

“Those are real things, and you’re bringing them to Nebraska,” she said.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who introduced the bill, said she understood there are strong opinions centered on abortion access.

“This bill is about babies with beating hearts, and they deserve to be protected," she said.

The debate drew hundreds of people both for and against the bill to the Capitol, where dueling rallies by abortion rights and anti-abortion groups were held.

Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston introduced the amendment to push the ban to 12 weeks last month, saying he was concerned that the current proposal might not give women enough time to know that they’re pregnant. But he also voted Wednesday to advance the bill.

Nebraska has the only single-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature in the United States. But each of its 49 lawmakers identify as Republican or Democrat and tend to propose and vote for legislation along party lines. Republicans hold 32 seats, while Democrats hold 17 seats. Although bills can advance with a simple majority, it takes a supermajority — 33 votes — to end debate to overcome a filibuster. So a single lawmaker breaking from the party line could decide whether a bill advances or dies for the year.

Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, a Democrat, voted Wednesday with Republicans to advance the bill. His reason, he said, is that he is a devout Roman Catholic who has always campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate.

The close divide in the Legislature played heavily in the defeat last year of a so-called trigger bill that would have automatically banned nearly all abortions in the state, even those resulting from rape and incest, as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That bill fell two votes short.

That failure came as a surprise in a state that had a history as a leader in abortion restrictions. In 2010, Nebraska enacted the country’s first law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the disputed theory that a fetus at that point can feel pain.

But Nebraska anti-abortion advocates have watched in frustration as other GOP-controlled states have moved quickly to ban or restrict abortion access since the fall of Roe. Abortion is already effectively banned at all stages of pregnancy in more than a dozen states. That number would be higher, except that courts have blocked bans in another six states.

Dueling federal court decisions handed down last week have also thrown into question access to abortion pills.