Legislation would allow voters to decide abortion rights in Nebraska Constitution

Similar measures nationwide have been favorable to abortion protections

By: - March 16, 2023 7:54 pm
Megan Hunt addressed legislation to amend the Nebraska Constitution for abortion access. in this file photo, she testifies before a legislative committee.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha presented two constitutional amendments on Thursday before the Health and Human Services Committee that would protect abortion access in the Nebraska Constitution. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

LINCOLN — One day after proposed abortion restrictions faced a hiccup in legislative support, a Nebraska lawmaker made the case Thursday for voters to determine whether abortion protections should be enshrined in the State Constitution.

Legislative Resolution 18CA and LR 19CA, both proposed by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, would put the question to voters in 2024 if approved by the Legislature.

LR 18CA would add “reproductive freedom” to Article 1, Section 1 of the Nebraska Constitution as one of the “inherent and inalienable rights.” In Nebraska, that includes life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the right to keep and bear arms.

LR 19CA would add Section 31 to Article 1, stating that each individual has a “fundamental right” to reproductive freedom, including all matters relating to pregnancy. The amendment states specifically: prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management and infertility care.

In addition, the state could not penalize, prosecute or otherwise take adverse action on actual, potential, perceived or alleged pregnancy outcomes.

Hunt said she offered two options to allow the Legislature to decide what course of action to present to voters.

“In the lead-up to floor debate over [Legislative Bill] 626, Senator Albrecht’s abortion ban, you’ve heard claims that Nebraskans support that bill en masse,” Hunt told a legislative committee Thursday. “If that’s true, let’s let them tell us. If Nebraskans are going to be fundamentally limited in their civil rights, let’s give them the choice in this matter and put it on the ballot.”

“If we deny them the opportunity to vote on this, I think that’s very telling about where the public actually stands on the issue,” Hunt continued.

Religions vary on protections

Sharon Brodkey, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Omaha, said personal decisions about reproductive health involve theological views that differ across the Jewish community.

“Jewish Community Relations Council strongly endorses the preservation of religious choice and opposes restrictions imposed by federal, state or local law, which would prevent or delay individuals from making reproductive health decisions in accordance with their own religious views,” Brodkey said.

Marion Miner, associate director of pro-life and family policy with the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said each child is “unique, personal and distinct” from the moment of fertilization.

“That human being has a right to life, and that right to life is not conditional,” Miner said. “It is not more or less due to that child depending on the child’s age, size, strength, weakness, disability, or the material and financial situation of the child’s family. Innocent people, babies included, have a right to life, and women deserve better than what the culture has offered them in this country for so many decades, which is simple abandonment to abortion.”

Multiple testifiers on Thursday, both in support of the legislation and against, compared abortion to genocide, many specifically citing the Holocaust. One testifier cited “The Ten Stages of Genocide,” which State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha also referred to Wednesday on legislation related to transgender Nebraskans.

Some also connected abortion to COVID-19 and the Holocaust.

Brodkey denounced those comparisons in an interview after the hearing and said that equivocating reproductive health to genocide is “out of bounds.”

“It’s deeply offensive,” Brodkey said. “It demonstrates a lack of understanding and knowledge about the Holocaust and about genocides in general, and it’s very difficult to sit through these testimonies and listen to the Holocaust being weaponized to make political points on these particular bills.”

Twelve-week amendment

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)

During the hearing, State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston complained that some news reports had misstated comments he made Wednesday to reporters regarding an amendment he introduced to LB 626.

The original bill would make abortion illegal when cardiac activity is detected (about six weeks into a pregnancy). Riepe’s amendment would instead restrict abortion at 12 weeks after conception. Under current Nebraska law, abortions are legal up until 20 weeks.

“I just wanted to go on record that while I was reported to have said that I felt that 626 was extreme, I did not say that. That was a misquote by the press,” Riepe said. “I just said I had a question, I wanted to have some dialogue.”

“The only thing they did get right is that I am looking for a dog,” he said, referring to a joke he made Wednesday about needing a dog to befriend him if his amendment turned people against him.

Riepe did not name specific news organizations in his criticism. His staff on Thursday confirmed the accuracy of the Nebraska Examiner’s report.

Ballot initiatives favorable nationwide

State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, expressed concern about whether Hunt’s proposals would allow abortions after 20 weeks and whether the term “reproductive freedom” was clear.

Hunt told the committee that she does not expect her legislation to be voted out of the committee. 

However, Hunt said, there will be a referendum on any abortion ban or a ballot initiative.

In November, voters in California, Michigan and Vermont added explicit protections to abortion access. Voters in Kentucky voted to uphold protections, which Kansas voters also did in August. 

In Montana, voters rejected a measure that would have provided criminal penalties for providers who refuse life-saving care when an abortion results in a live birth, a very rare circumstance.

“If they said it’s going to be up to the states, let’s make it up to the states,” Hunt said. “And not up to the 49 unqualified, untrained, inexperienced state lawmakers that we have in the state to make the decision instead because we really don’t know what’s best for individuals and families when it comes to decisions about how, when, where to start a family.”

“But I trust our neighbors, and I want to know what they think,” Hunt continued.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.