Nebraska lawmakers put off vote on 'heartbeat' abortion ban

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee took nearly eight hours of testimony Wednesday before adjourning without a vote on whether to advance a bill that would outlaw abortion at a point before many women know they’re pregnant.

Hundreds of people crowded the halls of the state Capitol for a committee hearing on a so-called heartbeat bill.

The bill would ban abortions once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, which is generally around the sixth week of pregnancy.

The committee took testimony from around 100 people before adjourning. A decision about whether to advance the bill will come at a later date.

“This bill is about one thing: protecting babies with beating hearts from elective abortion,” Republican Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee to kick off testimony on her bill Wednesday, which brought scores of ban supporters and hundreds of opponents into the Capitol.

Lawmakers opposed to the ban have already attempted to throw up roadblocks to thwart the measure. Several attended a protest in the rotunda just before Wednesday's hearing that drew around 300 people opposed to the ban, including medical professionals and clergy.

Democratic Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has been an outspoken opponent of restricting abortion rights, urged the crowd to continue showing up for each phase of the bill.

“We need constant, prolonged, righteous outrage. They need to feel your energy,” Hunt said, drawing a shout of, “We'll never stop!” from someone in the crowd, followed by a roaring chant of “No more bans!”

Hunt also led a push to move the bill out of the conservative-leaning HHS committee, where it is almost certain to be advanced, and into the more politically balanced Judiciary Committee. She and other lawmakers argued that because the proposal would criminalize most abortions, it should be heard by the Judiciary Committee.

But that effort failed in a vote on the legislative floor last week, with backers of the ban countering that the bill does not include criminal penalties for women who receive abortions or doctors who perform them. They said it would subject doctors who perform outlawed abortions to professional discipline, which could include losing their medical licenses.

While the bill doesn't list criminal penalties, it would make doctors vulnerable to criminal charges under existing state law, several lawmakers said. The law makes it a felony to perform an abortion not allowed under state law.

“I think a prosecutor and potentially a jury could find that if you've performed an abortion that's not in compliance with medical practice — enough so to lose your license — then you're also in violation of that criminal law ,” said Democratic Sen. John Cavanaugh, an attorney from Omaha.

He pointed to an open case in Norfolk in which prosecutors charged a 41-year-old woman with a felony for helping her 17-year-old daughter end her pregnancy at 24 weeks by supplying her with pills to induce an abortion.

“They will look at the statute and find ways to prosecute,” Cavanaugh said.

Among those warily watching the latest attempt to effectively ban abortion in the red state is Kacie Ware, 35, of Omaha, who detailed a day before the hearing how she sought an abortion after becoming pregnant at 16 by a man twice her age who had raped her repeatedly starting when she was 15.

Ware would not have been able to get an abortion under the current proposed ban because she didn't discover she was pregnant until well after six weeks of gestation, she said.

“I would have done almost anything to end that pregnancy,” Ware said, even endangering her life to do so. “I could have died. What I know is, an abortion ban won't end abortions. It's only going to end safe abortions.”

The hearing Wednesday ended with a heated exchange between Albrecht, the bill's main sponsor, and Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, who strongly opposes the ban.

Cavanaugh grilled Albrecht on how medical providers, under threat of losing their medical licenses, would be able to prove any abortions they provide were for women who were raped or to save the woman's life.

Albrecht insisted the way Nebraska doctors handle abortions won't change under the bill, repeating several times, “It's going to be done however it's done today," even though women currently have 20 weeks to terminate a pregnancy and don't have to report rape or incest to get an abortion.

At one point, the senators yelled over each other, with Cavanaugh asking, “You're okay with women dying if this bill is passed?”

“I'm not going to do this theater,” Albrecht shot back. “I'm not going to answer that.”

If enacted, Nebraska would join several other states that have passed similar cardiac activity abortion bans, including Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee. Nebraska, which in 2010 became the first state to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, recently has struggled to enact tighter abortion restrictions.

Anti-abortion lawmakers last year sought to pass a so-called trigger bill that would have automatically banned nearly all abortions, even those resulting from rape and incest, as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed the right to abortion nationwide for nearly five decades. The effort fell two votes short of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Democrats in Nebraska's officially nonpartisan, one-house legislature hold 17 of the body's 49 seats, which would again leave abortion ban backers short of a supermajority. But abortion rights proponents have acknowledged the alliance behind last year’s filibuster may no longer hold that the ban includes exceptions for rape and incest.