Ricketts says no special session will be held to further restrict abortion rights

Recent proposal to ban abortion after 12 weeks lacked the 33 senators needed to pass the proposal

By: - August 9, 2022 5:00 am

Omahans rally in support of abortion rights at Memorial Park in June, just after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. View is to the west along Dodge Street. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — An effort to compromise on the emotional issue of abortion was deemed a failure on Monday as Gov. Pete Ricketts said he would not be calling a special session of the Nebraska Legislature this year.

Abortion-rights opponents had floated a proposal to roll back the state’s current ban on abortion from 20 weeks to 12 weeks — a compromise from a full ban proposed earlier this year — but the deal fell short of the support of 33 of the 49 members of the Unicameral Legislature.

‘Divisive issue’

“It has always been a very divisive issue. But in politics that’s where we’re at now,” said State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, an abortion-rights opponent who was one of 30 senators who signed on to the compromise.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister, who supports abortion rights, said Monday that the 12-week idea was an “insignificant” change from current law and not enough to call back lawmakers for a special, and no doubt heated, special session.

“I’m not for making abortion any more restrictive at all,” McCollister said, adding that it’s the same opinion he hears from a lot of his constituents.

Ricketts, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, reacted quickly Monday after a letter was circulated Monday afternoon from the Speaker of the Nebraska, State Sen. Mike Hilgers. It stated that 30 senators supported his recent pitch to ban abortion after 12 weeks in Nebraska, instead of the current ban after 20 weeks.

That meant his idea was three votes short of the 33 senators needed to overcome a promised filibuster from proponents of abortion rights.

Better in regular session

Hilgers said he didn’t want to speak for why not enough senators signed onto his proposal, but there certainly were some who thought such a debate would be better held during the next regular session, which begins in January and continues for 90 days.

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks at a recent dedication of a state office building in honor of Chief Standing Bear. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Ricketts, in a press release issued only minutes after Hilgers’ letter was circulated on social media, hinted that more restrictive legislation might be coming later.

“Nebraskans need to have more conversations on the value we place on human life so more meaningful protections can be passed in our state,” said the Republican governor, who leaves office in January because of term limits.

A leading abortion rights advocate, State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, said she wasn’t surprised by the news.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

“Abortion bans aren’t popular,” Hunt said. “Any time government tries to come between a patient and a doctor — Nebraskans know that’s none of their business.”

She added that Nebraskans, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, have seen what has happened to patients in Texas, a 10-year-old sexual assault victim in Ohio and a vote in Kansas and are growing more and more concerned about the implications of the court’s ruling.

Ricketts had sought to call lawmakers back to Lincoln for a special session after the U.S. Supreme Court, in June, struck down the right to an abortion granted 49 years ago by overturning the landmark decision.

‘Stay tuned’

The governor said he had been working with Sen. Hilgers, a fellow abortion rights foe, on calling a special session and repeatedly told reporters to “stay tuned.”

State Sen. Mike Hilgers
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Last week, Hilgers began calling state senators with a proposal to amend current state law, by banning abortion after 12 weeks instead of the current 20.

But the proposal only won support of 30 senators — two fewer than supported a total ban on abortion proposed in a bill this spring that would have triggered a ban on all abortions, except in cases where a mother’s life is in danger, in the then-likely event that Roe v. Wade was overturned.  The trigger bill — similar to one passed by about a dozen states— fell two votes short.

“It is deeply saddening that only 30 Nebraska state senators are willing to come back to Lincoln this fall in order to protect innocent life,” Ricketts said in his press release. He called the Hilgers proposal “a measured, reasonable step” to further protect “pre-born babies.”

‘Extreme’ minority

A couple of minutes after Ricketts’ press release went out, releases were issued by three anti-abortion groups, Nebraska Right to Life, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Nebraska Family Alliance, decrying the lack of support.

“The extreme views of a minority of senators are continuing to silence and deny full equality under the law for our most vulnerable citizens who cannot speak for themselves,” stated the Nebraska Family Alliance.

Nebraska Right to Life specifically called out two senators, Gering Sen. John Stinner and Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, for failing to sign onto the Hilgers proposal after both had supported the total ban in the trigger bill during the regular session.

Stinner, reached Monday, said a special session was not the right “format or forum” to pass such a complex and important issue. That echoed comments he made last week that the 90-day regular session in 2023 would be better used for the issue.

Out of step

The senator, who is term limited, added that he favors legislation that would end the use of abortion as “birth control.”

Ricketts, as well as the anti-abortion groups, pointed out that most European counties ban abortion after 12 weeks and that the U.S. was out of step.

However, one caller to the governor’s monthly radio call-in show Monday afternoon said it was the governor who was out of step.

“The majority (of Nebraskans) are kind of OK with Roe v. Wade,” said the caller.

Ricketts, in his press release, urged Nebraskans to contact their senators to thank those who signed onto the Hilgers’ proposal and to encourage those who didn’t to “reconsider their decision.”

The governor said that Hilgers’ letter shows that “elections matter.” Hunt, a Democrat, said the same thing.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.