Abortion rights advocates file initiative petition language, but they’re mum on its exact content

One senator warns that unless polling shows 60% support for a proposal, it’s an ‘unserious effort’ that could inspire more restrictive bans

By: - October 31, 2023 7:33 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)

LINCOLN — Planned Parenthood officials filed their proposed language Tuesday for an initiative to restore abortion rights that they hope will be placed on the 2024 ballot in Nebraska.

But, for now, exactly what proposal voters may see will remain secret, in part due to a state law that allows such language to remain confidential for up to 15 days while it undergoes a review by the State Legislature’s bill drafters office.

Organizers of the petition drive say it will “restore our rights” for access to abortion, but one veteran senator — an abortion rights supporter — warned that pushing the envelope too far might “do more harm than good.”

Deciding which abortion rights proposal to put on a petition is a high-stakes, multimillion-dollar question. It will help determine whether enough signatures can be gathered to qualify it for the ballot, and whether it would eventually draw enough votes to pass.

‘You want something that will pass’

“You want something that will pass, that’s the first goal,” said Sarah Walker, of the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which advises groups on such petition drives.

Officials with the “Restore Our Rights” committee pushing the initiative petition drive declined to outline, specifically, what language was submitted to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday.

An official with the group, which includes Planned Parenthood North Central States and the ACLU of Nebraska, said more information will be shared next month at the official launch of its petition drive.

New law challenged

Abortion rights advocates have legally challenged Nebraska’s recently passed ban on abortion at 12 weeks gestational age.

The appeal says the law is unconstitutional because it violates the state’s single-subject rule, which requires legislative bills to contain only one topic.

The challenge was unsuccessful in Lancaster County District Court, but it has been appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, where it awaits oral arguments.

“Decisions about pregnancy and abortion belong to Nebraskans, not the government,” said the statement. “We’ve filed ballot initiative language to ensure Nebraskans can get the care they need with compassion and privacy, and without government interference.”

Some options

At least three options appear to be in play:

  • An all-out right to abortions. Sixteen states have significant abortion protections. Those include seven states and the District of Columbia, which have no restrictions on abortion after fetal viability, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
  • A 20-week ban on abortions. That was the state law until this spring, when the State Legislature passed, and Gov. Jim Pillen signed, a 12-week gestational ban.
  • A ban based on “fetal viability,” which is typically considered to be six months of pregnancy, or about 22-24 weeks gestation. In Ohio, voters will decide in November if that state is allowed to restrict abortion before a fetus reaches viability, or can survive outside the mother.

No matter what proposal abortion rights forces present, it is expected to be an expensive political campaign, with spending estimates ranging up to $10 million per side. In Ohio, pro- and anti-abortion rights forces have raised at least $80 million in that hotly contested campaign, according to Walker.

She said that public votes, or initiative petition drives, are underway or being considered on the abortion issue in 10 states across the country.

Ohio votes next month

“For me personally, I’m going to be looking closely at Ohio to see what happens there,” she said.

The vote in Ohio, Walker said, is noteworthy because it is a so-called “red trifecta” state, in which Republicans hold the governor’s mansion as well as both houses of its state legislature. Nebraska would be similar, though it only has a one-house Unicameral Legislature. 

Abortion rights advocates formed an initiative petition committee in August to restore access to abortion via the ballot box, and they have been advertising for a campaign director.

Andi Curry Grubb, executive director for Nebraska of Planned Parenthood North Central States,and head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska.(Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

In August, Andi Curry Grubb, the executive director for Nebraska of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said women should have the right to make their own decisions about pregnancy and abortion “without government interference.”

That would tend to suggest that the initiative petition will seek an unlimited right to abortion.

State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, a leading opponent of abortion, predicted that Nebraskans will reject whatever proposal the abortion rights forces present.

State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston  (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

“It’s their call, they can spend what they wish, but I don’t see it (passing),” Albrecht said. “I still think Nebraska is a pro-life state.”

The senator added that a lot of people remain upset that state lawmakers settled on a 12-week ban, rather than the initial proposal this spring, a six-week ban. That proposal fell one vote short of advancing.

Polling on potential language

The Examiner learned that in September, abortion rights advocates commissioned a poll to test Nebraskans’ views on the issue in hopes of discovering which of several options had the most support.

Danielle Conrad introduces legislation before a legislative committee
State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Advocates declined to share the results of that polling, but privately ad publicly, some abortion rights advocates question whether there’s enough support among Nebraska voters to pass an all-out right to abortion.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, an abortion rights supporter, said that she hasn’t seen the proposed ballot language but that unless polling shows it has at least 60% support, she labeled it an “unserious effort.”

‘Downright dangerous’

“Amending the (Nebraska) Constitution and raising such an important yet complex issue is serious business, and without a thoughtful strategy in place upon launch, it could  be downright dangerous and could cause more harm than good,” Conrad said, “by sparking more radical bans in the Legislature.”

The senator, who is serving her third term in the Unicameral, said that current law, while restrictive, provides access to abortion to about 90% of women who need it, “which is most likely where many Nebraska voters and state senators are comfortable.”

Still others wondered why abortion-rights advocates didn’t seek a referendum on the 12-week abortion ban passed this spring as part of Legislative Bill 574.

One source said it would have been a “cleaner” approach to restoring abortion rights — by nullifying LB 574 and returning to a 20-week ban — and would have avoided any potential legal challenges to an initiative placed on the ballot.

Walker, the initiative petition advisor, said Nebraska has “a very good chance of passing something” via the ballot, if it can build a strong, grassroots coalition. 

Plus, she said, a win in a conservative, “flyover” state like Nebraska could have a bigger impact on the national political scene.

‘As far as politically feasible’

Walker declined to recommend what kind of proposal should be advanced by abortion rights forces here but added, “You’re going to go as far as it’s politically feasible to go.”

Protect Our Rights, in its statement, said it’s time to protect access to abortion because “we know that Nebraska lawmakers won’t stop until they’ve completely stripped Nebraskans of their access.”

Under state law, once proposed language for an initiative petition drive is submitted to the Nebraska Secretary of State, the draft is forwarded to the Revisor of Statutes Office — the bill drafters for the State Legislature _ for its review.

That office has 10 days to complete a review. The Secretary of State’s Office then provides the review to an initiative’s sponsor and can suggest changes but must keep that information confidential for five days.

All of that leads to submittal of a final draft of the petition language, which the Secretary of State’s Office — which governs elections — uses to produce a final form of the petition to the sponsor.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to clarify the number of states that have significant abortion protections.


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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.