State Sen. Joni Albrecht, left, addresses a crowd of supporters. State Sen. Megan Hunt, right, addresses a crowd of opponents of Legislative Bill 626, a bill that would ban abortions after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity. They spoke at dueling rallies over a lunch hour during the recent legislative session. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska anti-abortion advocates celebrated clearing a major legislative hurdle Wednesday in a decades-long effort to curb what they call “elective abortions,” or abortions by choice.
Every Republican in the Legislature and one Democrat, State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, provided the 33 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Lawmakers gave first-round passage to Legislative Bill 626 by a 33-16 margin.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, would outlaw abortions after a required ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity. That is typically at about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
Albrecht described the first-round passage of LB 626 as “monumental” for Nebraska.
“This is about elective abortions,” she said about her bill’s intent. “I know every woman and every child deserves love. We can protect their lives.”
LB 626 now heads to a second round of debate that could prove decisive for the bill and for defenders of abortion rights.
That’s when State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston has said he plans to discuss his amendment, which would shift LB 626 from a ban when cardiac activity is detected to a ban at 12 weeks. The former hospital executive told the Nebraska Examiner last week that he would support LB 626 as written as long as he gets a chance to discuss his amendment.
Opponents hunting one vote
Local abortion-rights advocates need to peel a single vote away to stop LB 626 with help from a filibuster by State Sens. Megan Hunt and Machaela Cavanaugh, both of Omaha. Hunt acknowledged the challenge ahead.
“In a state where we are criminalizing care … what’s next?” Hunt asked her fellow senators. “Every year, we have some kind of abortion ban. What’s next? They just keep coming, one after another.”
Cavanaugh and other opponents of LB 626, including State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, questioned what abortions would be allowed if the bill is approved. Every major medical association in Nebraska that testified on LB 626 came out against it, Day said.
Day made the day’s biggest waves by comparing an embryo at six weeks to half a Tic Tac, the pill-sized mint, in size. At that point, she said, an embryo does not yet have a heart, lungs, fingers or toes.
“The sound you hear on an ultrasound is not a heartbeat,” Day said.
When life begins
State Sen. Ben Hansen of Lincoln and others, including Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, criticized Day for comparing an unborn child to candy.
“We were all just half a Tic Tac at one time,” Slama said.
Hansen spent several minutes quizzing opponents of the bill about what restrictions on abortions they would accept. None responded.
State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney gave senators a Bible lesson on the importance of motherhood.
State Sen. Brad von Gillern of Omaha described LB 626 as the most personal legislation senators will discuss in 2023. He said that “standing for life is never wrong.”
The big picture
Albrecht steered much of the day’s debate toward her goal of ending 85% of the 2,400 abortions performed in Nebraska annually, based on statistics collected by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha and State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington pointed to experiences in other states that have banned abortions. They said new laws won’t cut demand for abortion care.
“It can be safer or less safe for women,” DeBoer said of abortion. “But it will not go away.”
Questions about legal risk
Albrecht touted the bill’s exceptions for protecting the life of a mother and for rape and incest, which she said would not require a woman to file a police report. Several opponents questioned how minors could pursue those exceptions without triggering mandatory reporting by medical professionals.
Opponents of LB 626 also repeated concerns raised during the hearing on the bill, saying doctors who perform abortions and women who get abortions risk criminal penalties. State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha and Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who are attorneys, raised concerns that a prosecutor might pursue a felony charge for a doctor performing an abortion outside “accepted medical practices.”
Slama, who is also a lawyer, disagreed, saying the bill would not trigger prosecutions.
The Legislature’s newest member, State Sen. Carolyn Bosn, a former Lancaster County prosecutor, said her read of that section of current law is that it is meant to keep people from performing abortions outside of the medical industry and outside of medical norms.
“That statute refers to the procedures, methods, types, manners and setting, not when an abortion is performed,” Bosn said during a news conference.
Testy debate, dueling rallies
Things got testy even for people outside the debate. State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue criticized Lt. Gov. Joe Kelly for warning a crowd in the legislative gallery not to clap, heckle or cheer before debate started Wednesday. She said he hadn’t done so before, including before the debate on anti-trans legislation.
Dueling lunch-hour rallies with hundreds of attendees encouraged supporters and opponents of LB 626 with conflicting perspectives — one focused on women and one focused on the unborn.
Hunt and Cavanaugh joined other senators opposed to LB 626 at a rally in the Rotunda with more than 200 people, many of them carrying signs that said, “No bans ever!”
The senators emphasized that abortion remains legal in Nebraska, and Hunt encouraged people to stock up on mifepristone, an abortion medication.
The pill’s future is in jeopardy following divided judicial opinions in Washington State and Texas. The federal government appealed the Texas federal district court judge’s April 7 ruling that would overturn the FDA’s approval of mifepristone April 14 at midnight.
Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin of Temple Israel in Omaha joined a group of faith leaders at the Rotunda rally arguing that there is diversity in religious opinions about abortion rights.
Abortion access, she said, is vital when needed to protect a person’s physical or mental health. She said a “fetus represents potential life” but “must not supersede the life of a pregnant person.”
Minutes later, on the Capitol steps, Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, spoke about a watershed moment for anti-abortion advocates.
Albrecht told more than 200 people at a midday rally that Nebraskans have been praying for the past half-century for a day like Wednesday. She thanked the 32 other senators who made passage possible.
Gov. Jim Pillen, who appeared at the rally, agreed. He said LB 626 is the most important state legislation since Roe v. Wade was overturned, because it will save lives. He praised Albrecht for having the courage to stand by the bill.
“This is the most important time for all of us in public (service)…,” Pillen said of passing LB 626. “That we get this across the finish line, and today is the start.”
Nebraska Examiner intern Zach Wendling contributed to this report.
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