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Nebraska lawmakers debate six-week abortion ban

The "heartbeat bill" would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, often around six weeks after fertilization.

(CN) — A Nebraska legislative committee heard testimony and heated debate on the "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, on Wednesday night.

Authored by Republican state Senator Joni Albrecht, Legislative Bill 626 would ban abortions after cardiac activity is present in the fetus, a milestone that, on average, the fetus reaches six weeks after fertilization. Any medical professional who performs an abortion after that time would lose their license; according to Albrecht, neither they nor the woman would not face criminal or civil penalties. But other lawmakers said that under existing state law, doctors who perform an illegal abortion can be charged with a felony.

The bill explicitly says that it would not apply to such medical procedures as the removal of an ectopic pregnancy or In vitro fertilization. It also provides exceptions for sexual assault, incest, or "medical emergency."

"Every parent remembers hearing their child’s heartbeat for the first time," Albrecht said at the beginning of the committee hearing. "A heartbeat is a universal sign of life. Sadly, abortion stops that heart." She added: "Nothing in this bill would change the standard of care for women having a medical emergency."

Two of the Democratic members of the committee excoriated the bill, and in particular criticized the vagueness of the term "medical emergency."

The bill defines a medical emergency as "any condition which, in reasonable medical judgment, so complicates the medical condition of the pregnant woman as to necessitate the termination of her pregnancy to avert her death or for which a delay in terminating her pregnancy will create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function."

"How close to death does the woman have to be" in order to qualify for a medical emergency, asked Senator Machaela Cavanaugh.

"I certainly hope that doctors in our state know," said a flustered Albrecht. "They're experienced. They know if the woman is in trouble."

"So if the woman is in critical care, but she’s not at risk of death?" asked state Senator Jen Day.

"If it were to save a life of the woman," said Abrecht, "the doctor would make that decision for her." She added: "This legislation is about a beating heart. We’re not talking about a woman who wants the baby, we’re talking about a woman who doesn’t want the baby."

The committee heard more than six hours of public comment from both supporters and opponents of the bill. Critics testified during the hearing that the law would amount to a near total ban on abortion, as many women don't even find out they're pregnant until after they're six weeks pregnant. One doctor predicted that the ban would force most abortion providers to leave the state.

Many of the bill's supporters cited religious or moral grounds.

"Roe freed men to treat women like playthings," said Thomas Brejcha of the Thomas More Society. "This bill will restore the social sense of purpose and constrain and start to repair the corrosion brought by Roe."

Nebraska currently prohibits abortion 20 weeks after fertilization. Last year, the legislature tried to pass a "trigger bill," which would have automatically banned all abortion, in any circumstance, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which it did do months later. But that Nebraska bill failed, the bills proponents came two votes short of overcoming a filibuster.

Democrats currently hold 17 of the unicameral legislature's 49 seats, leaving the Republicans one vote shy of a filibuster-proof supermajority. But backers of the bill hope that the inclusion of exceptions for rape and incest will help lure at least one Democrat into voting to end debate on the controversial law.

At the end of the hearing, an exhausted Senator Albrecht was again questioned by her colleagues, in a tense back-and-forth.

"Are you OK with knowing that women will die if this bill gets passed?" Senator Day asked her.

"I’m not gonna do the whole theater thing, I'm done," Albrecht answered. "I don’t believe they're gonna die."

The committee adjourned, seven-and-a-half hours after it began, without voting.

Twelve states in America have banned abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Many of those states classify performing abortion as a felony, punishable by multiple years in prison, though most offer exceptions for when the woman's life is in danger. One other state, Georgia, has a six-week ban in place.

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