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Abortion restrictions tacked onto Nebraska proposal to restrict gender-affirming care

The measure now goes on to a second reading in Nebraska's unique unicameral legislature.

(CN) — The Nebraska Legislature Tuesday voted to attach a 12-week abortion ban to a controversial bill that would restrict gender-affirming care for minors, following a contentious debate at the state Capitol in Lincoln during which protesters were cleared from the balcony overlooking the chamber.

The vote effectively resurrects abortion restrictions thought dead a few weeks ago and also least slightly delays the legislation on gender-affirming care, LB 574, as the measure must now go back for a second reading under rules governing Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature.

"History will not look fondly upon anyone who votes for this façade," said state Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, a Democrat from Omaha. "Women will die. Children will die. It is your faults. It is your faults! And you are allowing it to happen. You do, literally, have blood on your hands. And if you vote for this you will have buckets and buckets of blood on your hands."

Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature thought they had won the battle on the abortion issue this session when a proposed six-week abortion ban failed to pass a few weeks ago. Instead, that ban was modified to a 12-week one and attached LB 574. Democrats assailed the move for, among numerous other problems, running afoul of the Nebraska Constitution's single-subject rule.

Even before the abortion amendment, Cavanaugh filibustered every bill in the Legislature in response LB 574, threatening "to burn the Legislative session to the ground." Restrictions on gender-affirming care have passed or are being considered in several states.

Nebraska has the only single-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature in the U.S. But each of its 49 lawmakers identifies as either a Republican or Democrat and tends to propose and vote for legislation along party lines. Republicans hold 32 seats, while Democrats hold 17 seats.

The Nebraska Legislature's vote on Tuesday was 33-15, with Democrat Mike McDonnell of Omaha voting with the GOP. The vote came the same day Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly overrode a veto of a 12-week abortion ban by the state's Democratic governor.

On Tuesday, those opposed to the ban on gender-affirming care for minors, packed the Capitol rotunda, chanting, their shouts filtering into the chamber as the senators debated. State Senator Megan Hunt, an Omaha Democrat and the mother of a transgender son, was moved to tears.

"You know what they are chanting out there? I just got it. They're chanting 'one more vote to save our lives!'" Hunt said, forcing her way through sobs. "Whether we are talking about mothers with devastating fetal diagnoses, who you think should be forced to carry a baby to term that has a brain outside its head — what is wrong with you — or you're talking about trans children who are 4, 5, 6, who are 16, 17, 18, who can be all ages, but the way government is coming down in this body between a parent and a child and a health care professional is unprecedented. It's unreal."

But State Senator Kathleen Kauth, an Omaha Republican and LB 574's sponsor, said she also heard the protesters.

"As we hear the people outside chanting 'one more vote to save our lives,' I would agree with that statement. We have one vote to save the lives of children from a lifetime of pain and regret," she said. "These are surgeries and medications that are experimental, they are irreversible. We owe it to kids to let them grow up so they can make these decisions as adults."

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen, a Republican, cheered the Legislature's move.

"Our kids are our future, and the advancement of LB5 74 is an important step in protecting that future. I applaud the senators who voted for LB5 74 and stood up for our commonsense, conservative values," he said in a statement released late Tuesday.

It wasn't immediately clear when the legislators would take up the matter again, but it will likely be soon. The last day of the 2023 session is scheduled for the second week of June.

After the vote, senators who support abortion rights and gender-affirming care exited the chamber into the rotunda, greeted by the chants of their allies. Many others avoided the protesters by leaving out a back door. A reporter from the Omaha World-Herald reported Hunt and Cavanaugh taunted them as they snuck away, calling them cowards.

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