Cardiac-activity abortion ban bill draws hundreds to Nebraska Capitol

Opponents and proponents testified for three hours each

By: - February 1, 2023 7:57 pm

Hundreds packed the hearing room Wednesday to testify for and against Legislative Bill 626, the bill that would ban abortions in Nebraska after an ultrasound can detect embryonic cardiac activity. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Proponents and opponents were given three hours each Wednesday to argue over State Sen. Joni Albrecht’s bill aimed at outlawing abortions in Nebraska after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity.

State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston discusses her “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortions at about six weeks. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Hundreds in an overflow crowd waited hours to testify for two or three minutes to the seven members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, during the public hearing for Legislative Bill 626.

Sen. Ben Hansen, the committee chairman, stacked the testimony in separate blocks, starting with three hours from supporters, then three hours from opponents and then limited neutral testimony.

Albrecht and her 28 co-sponsors have labeled LB 626 as a “heartbeat bill.” The bill would ban abortions in Nebraska after about six weeks of gestational age, with exceptions for the health and life of the mother.

She called it the most important piece of legislation senators will consider this session. 

“We’re not talking about women who want to have their baby,” she said of her bill. “We’re talking about women who want to not have their baby, elective abortions.”

The bill’s critics, including State Sens. Megan Hunt, said the bill would give women less than six weeks to decide on a pregnancy because most women wouldn’t have enough time to even learn that they are pregnant.

She said the bill targets women and their reproductive rights to punish and control them.

“It’s effectively a ban,” Hunt said. “All they need to do is look at our sister states … passing abortion bans, and they can see exactly what we can expect.”

Opponents of additional abortion restrictions in Nebraska gather in the Rotunda before the hearing on Legislative Bill 626, the so-called “heartbeat bill” banning abortions after embryonic cardiac activity shows up on an ultrasound. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Women weigh in

Bill supporters, including Albrecht, argued that human life in the womb is more than a clump of cells. Several women discussed the first time they heard rhythmic beats during their children’s ultrasounds.

One woman, Carol Watson of Arnold, spoke of a recent local high school graduate and farmer who she said was born prematurely in the mid-1980s and survived. She said he could have been lost to abortion. 

But the mother, at a doctor’s office in Broken Bow in 1984, was shown an ultrasound and heard something she didn’t recognize. She asked the doctor what it was. He told her it was the heartbeat, Watson said. 

Several supporters spoke about the need to protect the unborn, including 19-year-old Anna Olson, who said she is “bombarded with messages” saying the state should not be able to restrict a woman’s right to choose. Albrecht has said the bill could reduce abortions in Nebraska by 85%.

“These babies are not choices,” Olson said. “They are children worthy of protection.”

One opponent, Megan Wilcox, testified about the pregnancy that she and her husband decided to end in 2017 after doctors and tests showed that their son, Body, could not survive outside of the womb.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad (center) speaks about abortion rights in the Rotunda Wednesday, flanked by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha and Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, among others. They said Nebraskans don’t want additional restrictions on abortion. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“It’s been five years,” she said. “I can’t describe the ache I feel. I have no regrets. I know we made the choice that was right for us … a choice we would not have been able to make if LB 626 had been law.”

Doctors split

Doctors testified for and against the ban, though more testified against it. Dr. Elena Kraus of Lincoln said lawmakers needn’t worry if doctors would leave the state if the bill passed because doctors who oppose elective abortions would replace them.

Kraus, an obstetrician, said she could not think of a single “high-risk medical situation” that LB 626 would prevent doctors from performing.

“Others may argue (the bill) will hinder life-saving medical care,” Kraus said. “This is not true.”

Dr. Ingrid Skop of Texas, who spoke for the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, stressed that LB 626 would leave doctors to their “reasonable medical judgment,” a standard of care doctors know.

Dr. Mary Kinyoun, an obstetrician at the Nebraska Medical Center, disagreed during her testimony on behalf of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Testifiers wait to talk in support of Legislative Bill 626, the bill that would ban abortions in Nebraska after an ultrasound can detect embryonic cardiac activity. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She described the bill’s medical exceptions for the life and health of the mother as vague and said women would be confused about what care they can seek and doctors would worry about what care they can provide. 

That ambiguity is one of the reasons why the Nebraska Medical Association opposes the bill, said Dr. Daniel Rosenquist, the group’s president, though he acknowledged that doctors are divided. 

His members also raised questions about a state statute, 28-336. Some doctors worry that it might put medical providers at risk of committing a felony if they perform abortions that run afoul of LB 626.

Dr. Emily Patel, a mother and doctor in Omaha, said she worries most about outcomes for women with potential health complications who do not seek abortion care because of a bill like LB 626.

She pointed to morbidity rates doubling in Texas after that state passed a similar six-week ban and said more Nebraska women would face serious illnesses and potential injuries if the state adopts a ban.

“I want to be able to care for patients in the best way I know how, and without interference from the government,” Patel said.

No consensus

Marion Miner of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said four states bordering Nebraska — Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota and Wyoming — provide as much or more stringent restrictions on abortion than LB 626.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said at a press conference Wednesday that women who care about abortion rights were organizing to make sure lawmakers understand they do not want more laws governing their bodies. Hunt said the process of pushing back was just beginning.

Opponents and proponents of the bill disagreed about where Nebraskans stand on abortion. Albrecht cited a conservative survey showing support for her bill, while Sen. Jen Day of Omaha cited a Pew poll saying a majority of Nebraskans want no new restrictions.

The committee did not vote Wednesday on whether to advance the bill to the full Legislature.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.