As the U.S. Supreme Court considers the fate of Roe v. Wade, Nebraska lawmakers will face a range of abortion bills that will either restrict or expand abortion access.
Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling introduced LB781 — the Heartbeat Act — on Jan. 5, which is one of three anti-abortion related bills introduced in the Nebraska Legislature in January.
Sandy Danek, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, said she also is a part of the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Nebraska Family Alliance. The three organizations work in a coalition to lobby senators on anti-abortion legislation. Danek said the organizations had been trying to find a senator who had interest in sponsoring the heartbeat bill, and Slama showed that interest.
“We’re in unprecedented times for the pro-life movement in the United States, and riding that wave, I felt called to introduce LB781,” Slama said.
Slama said her legislation is a relatively simple bill and that abortion would be banned in Nebraska once a fetal heartbeat is detected. However, there is no universal recognition of a true “heartbeat” on an early ultrasound because the embryo, which is not yet a fetus, does not yet have a heart. The sound a heartbeat makes is caused by the opening and closing of cardiac valves, but those valves do not exist yet at six weeks of gestation.
“The importance of this bill is protecting our most innocent lives,” Slama said. “I think as a society, we are judged by our treatment of those who are most innocent, most vulnerable, and pre-born babies absolutely fit that bill.”
Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has introduced legislation to expand abortion access, said the bill would require physicians to conduct an ultrasound before they perform an abortion to see if they can detect a fetal heartbeat.
“Physicians can usually detect cardiac activity after about six weeks, which is before many women actually know that they’re pregnant,” Hunt said.
Danek agreed with Hunt, but said there are more than 25 pregnancy help centers in Nebraska to help them. Some centers include the Pregnancy Center in Lincoln and Assure Women’s Center in Omaha. Danek also said that adoption is another option. Some pregnancy health centers in Nebraska can provide people with free medical care or other financial support, and provide educational tools so people know what governmental resources are available to them, according to Danek.
She said centers can also help with providing baby clothes, baby equipment or other needs they may have.
“The mechanism of support is in place to help those women who might be in an unplanned pregnancy,” Danek said. “We always focus on education and support to the woman who’s in an unplanned pregnancy.”
One concern about Slama’s bill is that some women would not know they are pregnant before a heartbeat is detected or what doctors refer to as electrical activity appearing on an ultrasound, Slama said she supports protecting innocent life.
“My comment would be that life is life, and once that heartbeat is detected, that is one of our society’s biggest views of when life begins,” Slama said.
Jo Giles, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said one of the organization’s values is bodily autonomy and that everyone deserves the right to decide if, when and how to start a family.
“We think that Nebraskans don’t need more restrictions on health care,” Giles said. “What is really needed is barrier-free access to affordable health care, access to comprehensive sex education and access to birth control.”
Hunt has introduced three bills to “move our state forward and protect abortion access.” LB715 is a repeal of the ban on insurance companies covering abortion, Hunt said. She introduced this bill because insurance only covers abortion when the life of a mother is endangered unless the person purchases additional insurance, according to Hunt. The hearing will take place on March 1, 2022.
LB716 would allow qualified practitioners, such as certified nurse midwives, advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants, to perform abortions.
“In many states, they can already perform these services, just not in Nebraska,” Hunt said. “There’s no data from any of these states saying that there’s a danger to expanding it to these practitioners.”
LB716’s hearing will take place on Feb. 24.
She said she also has a carryover bill from the 2021 session, LB276, which would eliminate the ban on telemedicine for abortion services.
Hunt said abortion services are the only procedure not allowed to be done via telemedicine in Nebraska, so a physician is currently not able to evaluate a patient or prescribe for an abortion through medication over video. Hunt said this affects people, especially those who are economically disadvantaged or from rural communities because people might have to take time off work or find transportation to go to an appointment in person.
“That’s a big burden on people and I think it’s an undue burden,” Hunt said. “Lifting the ban on telemedicine for abortion, it really just puts Nebraska at the same level of the standard of care in the medical community.”
Hunt said she was aware Slama’s bill would be proposed since similar legislation has passed in other states, such as Texas’s Heartbeat Act.
Texas’s SB8 bans an abortion if a heartbeat can be detected, but Hunt said Texas’s law allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion for at least $10,000, which would include anyone who gives a woman a ride to a clinic or provides financial assistance for an abortion.
Hunt said the heartbeat bills in Nebraska and Texas do not include any exceptions for rape or incest or if the life of the mother is at risk.
Danek said she believes that the majority of Nebraskans are against abortion and that Nebraska’s elected officials are a reflection of that.
Slama said the response to Nebraska’s proposed Heartbeat Act has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that she has received thousands of messages thanking her for bringing the bill and “standing up and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Hunt said she does not really think about whether Nebraska is against abortion because people must trust women and people in general to make the best decisions for themselves.
“Those aren’t always decisions that everybody understands,” Hunt said. “I think you go through life and you grow up and you have experiences, and you find out that things aren’t really as black and white as they seem, and we, politicians and elected officials, really don’t know what’s best for everybody. However we feel about abortion, I encourage everybody to live their life and make the choices that are best for them.”
Giles said it should be up to the individual on whether or not they get an abortion.
“However people personally feel about abortion, it’s the individual that should have the option to make those decisions without the political interference of lawmakers,” Giles said.
Hunt said Slama’s bill would hurt women and especially people who are disadvantaged. Hunt said there will be people who will travel long distances and spend a lot of money in order to receive abortion care. Hunt said those without means will be least able to cross state lines for abortions, and she speculated that self-managed abortion care will rise.
Giles said LB781 would push health care out of reach for many Nebraskans, including young people, people living in rural communities, people who have lower income, LGBTQ individuals and people of color.
“It would be a barrier to timely, affordable and highly quality reproductive health care and it would harm those individuals who are already marginalized in our communities,” Giles said.
Slama said she is ready for the hearing on LB781 on Feb. 24.
“I’m looking forward to bring this bill and getting LB781 across the finish line, so that Nebraska statutes reflect the fact that we are a pro-life state,” Slama said.
Hunt said she believes that whether or not someone has an abortion should be up to that individual and not up to government officials.
“The decision about whether and when to become a parent really belongs to Nebraskans in consultation with their families and their loved ones and their faith and their medical providers, and politicians really have no place interfering with those personal health decisions,” Hunt said.