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Nebraska senators debate near-total ban on abortion

Supporters say the measure will only affect "elective" abortions and does carry criminal penalties for doctors or patients, while opponents say healthy pregnancies will be jeopardized if it passes.

(CN) —The Nebraska Legislature began debate on a “heartbeat bill” Wednesday that would ban abortion after a heartbeat can be detected in a fetus, generally considered to be six weeks after fertilization — and often before a person knows they're pregnant.

Legislators voted 33 to 16 just after 7:10 p.m. to advance the bill to the second round of debate in the single-house Legislature. Senators had debated the measure for much of the day, beginning at 9 a.m. at the State Capitol in Lincoln.

The measure, Legislative Bill 626, is expected to pass after three rounds of debate and go to the desk of Governor Jim Pillen, a Republican, for his signature. Democrats hold 17 of the officially nonpartisan Legislature's 49 seats, leaving the Republicans one vote shy of a filibuster-proof supermajority. One Democrat, Mike McDonnell of Omaha, supports the bill.

A complicating factor in the next round of debate may be an amendment offered by state Senator Merv Riepe, a Republican from the Omaha suburb of Ralston, that would make abortions illegal after 12 weeks of pregnancy instead of six.

State Senator Joni Albrecht, a Republican from northeast Nebraska and the bill's author, kicked off the debate by emphasizing that, unlike much other anti-abortion legislation being debated in statehouses around the U.S., LB 626 carries no civil or criminal penalties for doctors or their patients.

She referred to fetuses as babies and wasn’t the only supporter of the measure to do so.

“It’s about one thing: Protecting babies with beating hearts from elective abortion,” she said. “The bill clearly provides that treatment for entopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or any medical situation, will remain unaffected.”

She added: “Nothing in LB 626 changes the standard of care for any pregnant woman who is facing a medical emergency, including in the rare and tragic cases where the baby and the mother must be separated to protect her life or health.”

State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha was the first opponent of the measure to speak.

“It is not as simple as it is being portrayed by the introducer,” Cavanaugh, a Democrat, said. “Elective abortions are any abortions where the patient is not dying on the table. It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to die. It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to commit suicide. They are not actively dying, therefore it is elective.”

The bill, Cavanaugh argued, amounts to banning lifesaving health care.

LB 626 “does cause problems with ectopic pregnancies. It does cause problems with fetal anomalies that are life-threatening. Patients will die. Babies will die. Healthy pregnancies will be diminished in this state. This is bad health care," she said.

As far as Riepe's 12-week amendment is concerned, conservative senators have told local media that polling shows public support for abortion bans diminishes when they are set at less than 12 weeks of pregnancy. While conservatives don’t see the 12-week ban being approved, a senator who wants a change could get it as wide support would be needed for supporters of LB 626 to overcome a filibuster by a liberal member of the body.

Wednesday's debate is the latest occurrence in a contentious 2023 session, where Cavanaugh filibustered every bill in the Legislature in protest of a proposal by a GOP lawmaker that would bar gender-affirming medical care to people under age 19.

Nebraska currently prohibits abortion after 20 weeks. 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 months later. But that Nebraska bill failed, falling two votes short of overcoming a filibuster.

Twelve states 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 when the woman's life is in danger. One other state, Georgia, has a six-week ban in place.

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