Amid dueling rallies, Nebraska state senators debate 6-week abortion ban

Lawmakers advance LB626; governor holds rally outside capitol as faith leaders join protesters in rotunda
Nebraska lawmakers are on day one of debating a controversial abortion ban bill.
Published: Apr. 12, 2023 at 5:59 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Debate at the state capitol focused on one thing Wednesday: abortion.

Debate continued in the evening with a 33-16 cloture vote to end it — stopping an eight-hour filibuster — happening at about 7 p.m.

The bill was then advanced to the second round by the same vote count.

The day began with three hours of passionate arguments on the floor of the senate. Then at lunch, the debate came outside — and turned into dueling protests.

“Faith leaders do not speak with one voice on this issue,” said State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.

Those who believe in the status quo in Nebraska, where abortion is allowed through 20 weeks, packed the capitol rotunda. They wanted Nebraskans to know that there are faith leaders who do not support the LB626, the bill to ban abortion starting at six weeks.

Rabbi Deana Berezin of Temple Israel in Omaha said she wanted “to remind my friends and neighbors and elected officials that abortion access is a Jewish value.”

It’s a sentiment shared by some who follow the Christian faith as well.

“I had a miscarriage past 12 weeks, and I needed access to healthcare,” said Rev. Debra McKnight of Urban Abbey and United Methodist Church in Omaha. “The last thing I needed was my doctor to decide if I was in enough danger — with a hospital attorney to offer me a DNC.”

At the same time as the objections inside the capitol, there were voices of support for the bill, too.

“Elective abortions have got to go away. We’ve got to start saving babies,” said State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston.

Both sides used their lunch break to rally their supporters.

Supporters of LB626 gathered Wednesday afternoon outside on the capitol steps, with the governor leading the charge.

“The ‘heartbeat bill’ is simple: It’s about protecting babies,” Gov. Jim Pillen said.

Back on the Unicameral floor, there were hours of passionate arguments by both sides.

The bill would ban abortion once cardiac activity is detected in an embryo — often around the sixth week of pregnancy. Based on the most recent data that would make 86% of abortions in Nebraska illegal if the bill is approved, effectively making a six-week ban like a total abortion ban.

Some said they saw it as an attack on their healthcare.

“This is bad healthcare. We had dozens and dozens of doctors testify and tell us exactly what this bill would do — and it will hurt their patients,” Cavanaugh said.

Others argued the bill won’t affect healthcare in extreme situations.

“Nothing in LB626 changes the standard of care for any pregnant woman who is facing a medical emergency, including in the rare and tragic case where the baby and the mother must be separated to protect her life or health,” Albrecht said.

The Unicameral’s newest senator said criminalization wasn’t the bill’s focus.

“This law does not limit doctors from performing abortions for medical purposes,” said State Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln, who joined the Unicameral this week. “This law is designed and directed to elective abortions after a heartbeat has been detected. ... The statute has never been used to prosecute a doctor for abortion after 20 weeks under the existing law. And the same goes for the application under this bill, which would not be used to criminalize abortion.”

State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha wasn’t reassured.

“There is nothing friendly about state-sanctioned forced pregnancy. It’s brutal and barbaric, and there’s no way you can paint it as friendly,” she said.

But supporters of the six-week abortion ban bill argue that it’s simply about saving babies, estimating that Nebraskans have had 200,000 abortions since Roe v. Wade became law 50 years ago.

“Today we are talking about a heartbeat. We do not need scientific studies to tell us that a beating heart means life,” said State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue.

Graphic by Digital Director Gina Dvorak