State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston talks with legislative staff on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The path to passage for a proposed ban on Nebraska abortions after an ultrasound detects cardiac activity ran into a Ralston-sized roadblock on Wednesday.
Ralston State Sen. Merve Riepe, a former hospital administrator who supported previous efforts to restrict abortion, proposed amending the restriction in Legislative Bill 626 to instead make abortions illegal after 12 weeks.
He said he and other senators who oppose abortion but prefer a “measured approach” want to discuss an alternative to the “heartbeat bill,” which sponsors have said would essentially ban abortions after about six weeks of gestation.
“I wish we would’ve had the debate before things got introduced, but we didn’t,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to do what it takes when something deserves a discussion.”
Riepe said he filed the amendment and walked over to explain his reasons for filing it to State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who sponsored LB 626. Riepe was a co-sponsor of the more restrictive bill.
Riepe said the “six-week ban is tantamount to a total ban,” which many of his constituents oppose, he said. His comments echoed the views of most of the doctors who testified against LB 626 in a public hearing.
Riepe said that he doesn’t like surprises and that he didn’t like surprising anyone with his amendment. But, he said, he was surprised when LB 626 was introduced instead of a 12-week ban.
Albrecht told him Wednesday she was disappointed by his amendment. She told reporters that losing Riepe’s vote for cloture might put the bill at risk of falling to a filibuster from abortion rights advocates.
The bill needs 33 votes to overcome a filibuster. Albrecht said she has just enough support to get the bill over the line, but a single supporter’s departure could stall it.
She said Riepe’s 12-week ban “is not acceptable to myself or the other 32 (supporters).” She argued that her bill is “not about a ban.”
“It’s sad,” she said, adding that his amendment has created confusion about whether he will ultimately vote for the bill or not.
Riepe said he has no problem being the 33rd vote to get LB 626 past the first round of debate. But he wants “a full and fair debate” on his amendment in the second round of debate, he said.
Riepe said he knows this is going to turn people against him, but he said the discussion is worth having, even if it means he has to “get a dog so I can have a friend.”
Senators had discussed 12 weeks
Anti-abortion groups including Nebraska Right to Life and the Nebraska Family Alliance have argued that Nebraska should ban abortion outright. The state currently bans abortions after 20 weeks.
In the last legislative session, senators fell two votes short of passing a bill put forward by Albrecht and then-Sen. Mike Flood to ban abortion in Nebraska if Roe v. Wade was overturned.
After the U.S. Supreme Court took that step in June and sent the decision back to the states, Riepe said he gladly signed onto a letter last summer by then-Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers to support a 12-week ban in a special session, but supporters couldn’t find the 33 senators needed.
He said he was surprised to see the new legislation come back using cardiac activity as the standard, because that usually occurs around six weeks of gestational age.
Riepe said he has heard from doctors and constituents that most women won’t know they are pregnant in time to make an ultrasound appointment, let alone decide.
He worries that women who want to terminate their pregnancies might try to induce their own abortions or harm themselves.
He said he also worries that LB 626 will encourage women who miss the cardiac deadline to accuse a partner of sexual assault, which could lead to criminal investigations and charges.
All sides watching
Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood of Nebraska said her group is not celebrating Riepe’s amendment, because it still restricts a woman’s ability to exercise autonomy over her body.
Grubb said state senators who oppose abortion are figuring out that Nebraskans don’t want them to pass a bill “as extreme as LB 626.” And women and their allies need to keep working.
“It’s interesting that there is someone who is this conservative and has been so conservative … that he would be the one raising these questions,” Grubb said.
“The outlook on this bill has changed literally every day for the last three weeks,” she said. “We cannot relax until the bill is defeated.”
Anti-abortion activists huddled Wednesday to figure out a way forward.
Nate Grasz of the Nebraska Family Alliance and Sandy Danek of Nebraska Right to Life said their organizations oppose Riepe’s amendment.
“This amendment will cost 1,700 lives,” Grasz said.
Danek said LB 626 would stop more than 2,000 abortions a year, based on 2021 statistics compiled by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. About 300 abortions a year in Nebraska are performed after 12 weeks.
Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel contributed to this report.
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