‘Heartbeat’ abortion bill and measure blocking gender-altering procedures sent to full Legislature

Opponent of both Nebraska bills vows to ‘burn the session’ with extended debate

By: - February 22, 2023 8:50 pm
Abortion rights rally

Emotions flared after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the constitutional right to abortion. Omahans rallied in support of abortion rights at Memorial Park in the wake of the court decision. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from various organizations.

LINCOLN — A legislative committee, after a few testy exchanges, advanced controversial bills Wednesday evening to make abortion less accessible and ban minors from obtaining gender-altering procedures.

The votes were both 4-2, with one senator, Lynne Walz of Fremont, absent for the executive session.

State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he was not surprised by the divided vote, given the strong feelings on both sides of the two issues.

Ben Hansen Steve Halloran speaks at an Agriculture Committee hearing
State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, a member of the Agriculture Committee, introduces himself at one of the committee’s hearings on Tuesday, Feb. 21, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The abortion bill, Legislative Bill 626, the “Nebraska Heartbeat Act,” would effectively ban the procedure after six weeks, if a physician can detect a heartbeat. It has at least 31 supporters, two short of the 33 needed to head off a filibuster and get the measure passed.

“I’ve never hidden that I’m a pro-life politician,” Hansen said. “I feel that this will save many innocent live.”

‘Let Them Grow Act’

After the votes, State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha pledged to “burn the session” through protracted debate because of the advancement of the “Let Them Grow Act,” which would block any gender alteration procedures prior to a person’s 19th birthday.

Senators listen to trans rally
State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, in front left, and Jen Day, to Cavanaugh’s left,  rallied in support of trans youth rights in the Nebraska State Capitol earlier this month. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“It’s an attack on children, and it attacks very, very vulnerable children,” Cavanaugh said, citing the higher rates of suicide among transgender teens.

Omaha Sen. Kathleen Kauth, who introduced LB 574, said Cavanaugh is entitled to her opinion but said her intent is to prevent minors experiencing gender dysphoria or unease from “irreversible life decisions that are experimental.”

Cultural divide

The cultural divide between abortion rights opponents and advocates was clearly evident during the executive session of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, as were the divided opinions about the rights of transgender teens.

The conservative shift in the 49-seat Unicameral, following the striking down of the constitutional right to abortion last year, has emboldened abortion opponents to seek further restrictions and energized abortion rights advocates to maintain those rights.

Reaction following advancement of the bills:

LB 626:

Scout Richters of ACLU of Nebraska said, “Banning abortion at six weeks, before many people who will need abortion care even know they are pregnant, is extreme. All we have to do is look to other states to see the serious, life-altering consequences of these bans.”

Adam Schwend of Susan B. Anthony’s Pro-Life America called advance of LB 626 “a major victory” as the first state in the country after the 2022 election to advance a “heartbeat” bill. “We have the potential to save 2,000 lives every year.”

Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska: “We have a long fight still ahead of us, and we stand with Nebraskans — a growing majority of whom support keeping abortion safe and legal.”

Sandy Danek of Nebraska Right to Life said, “All babies deserve protection with compassion and support being offered to both women and their defenseless preborn children.”

LB 574:

bbi Swatsworth of Out Nebraska  said that discriminatory bills targeting gay and transgender people are being introduced across the country. “We are deeply disappointed that many of our state legislators have followed suit.”

Jane Seu of ACLU of Nebraska called the bill a dangerous intrusion into families’ personal lives. “Decisions about medical care for trans youth belong to parents, youth and trusted medical professionals who are making decisions based on science.”

Currently, Nebraska bans elective abortion after 20 weeks.

Critics of the “heartbeat” proposal say many women do not realize that they are pregnant until after six weeks, making LB 626 a “near total ban” of abortion.

Cavanaugh and Gretna Sen. Jen Day unsuccessfully requested consideration of amendments to the bill during the closed-door executive session, which is open only to members of the committee and the news media.

An ‘OB-GYN desert’

Day said that the impact of LB 626 would ge far beyond elective abortion and would force obstetricians and gynecologists to leave the state, creating an “OB-GYN desert” in Nebraska.

She added that women could die because their health care would no longer be guided by a physician, but by politicians.

Ralston Sen. Merv Riepe, along with Hansen, disputed that.

LB 626 includes exceptions for the health of the mother, as well as for pregnancies caused by rape and incest.

Unclear rape exception

Cavanaugh maintained that the bill should be amended because it was unclear about how a physician would determine whether a woman had been raped and whether it should be reported to police.

She said that because LB 626 faces a filibuster, it was unlikely that it could be amended during floor debate. Thus, she said, any changes should be adopted by the committee. But Cavanaugh also said making no changes makes the bill more vulnerable to a court challenge.

Riepe argued against amending the bill, saying no matter how much it was changed, it would be challenged in court.

The Let Them Grow Act prompted dozens of people to flood a legislative chamber two weeks ago to testify for and against the bill.

Proponents said that minors need time to grow up before undergoing gender-altering procedures. Opponents decried the meddling of politicians into the families’ personal medical decisions.

Thurston Sen. Joni Albrecht, the chief sponsor of the abortion bill, has indicated that she will likely make it her priority bill, thus guaranteeing it will be debated this session.

Kauth said the trans bill among the bills she is considering prioritizing. If it isn’t prioritized by her or another senator, it would face a more uncertain chance of coming up for debate this year.

Rare ‘minority statement’

Cavanaugh said she doubts that the Let Them Grow Act has 33 votes to withstand a filibuster and thus it would be a waste of time to bring it up for discussion by the full Legislature.

Joining Hansen and Riepe in voting “yes” on both bills were Sens. Beau Ballard of Lincoln and Brian Hardin of Gering.

Cavanaugh and Day voted “no” on advancement of both measures.

Cavanaugh pledged to draft a rarely used “minority statement” on both bills. Typically, when a committee votes out a bill for debate by the full Legislature, its “committee statement” includes only the vote, who testified for and against the measure, and an explanation of the bill.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.