The Nebraska Heartbeat Act, which would have banned abortions after a heartbeat was detected, is now dead for this session after a dramatic week in the Legislature. And it was a former hospital administrator that set it all in motion.
State Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha attempted to amend the act to ban abortions at 12 weeks instead of 6, but after that failed earlier this month, he pulled his support for the bill. That meant supporters didn’t have the votes to overcome a filibuster.
Riepe told Omaha TV station WOWT that part of his reasoning for pulling his support was the concerns he’d heard from doctors.
“I still stand with the idea that the 12-week makes more sense to me than going to this almost no abortions in the ban of the 6 weeks,” he told the station.
Doctors were among the most vocal during the debate.
Mary Kinyoun, an OB-GYN from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, testified against LB 626 in January. She argued the bill had narrow exemptions for pregnancy-related emergencies and cases of rape and incest.
“This bill is significant because it’s banning abortion before many women know they’re pregnant,” Kinyoun said. “Additionally, the language around the exemptions for medical emergencies and threat to the life of the mother are fairly vague and difficult to interpret from a medical professional standpoint.”
According to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in their 2020 workforce update, OB-GYN availability in Nebraska is already scarce. As of 2019, Nebraska had only 10.9 physicians per 100,000 people. Most of these physicians reside in the eastern part of the state.
Libby Crockett, an OB-GYN from Grand Island, said she is concerned about Nebraska’s ability to recruit and maintain physicians after seeing the effects of anti-abortion legislation in other states. Crockett pointed to Idaho, which enacted a total ban on abortion shortly after the overturning of Roe V. Wade.
“I have a good friend who practices in Idaho and I have joked in the past that I would move to the moon to work with her, but I wouldn’t move to Idaho right now,” Crockett said. “Idaho OB-GYNs are leaving. If they haven’t left yet, they probably will over time.”
In Florida, a similar ban is in the legislature that would ban abortions at six weeks gestation. Dr. Karen E. Harris, a former district chair for the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, said she is confident the proposed abortion ban would cause doctors to flee Florida and would make doctors in training avoid programs in the state.
“I am currently recruiting someone into the practice that I am in, and she may not come to our state to practice with us,” Harris said. “She is excellent. But I am very worried that she won’t even look at us. Why would she? You can’t practice the standard of care. Abortion care is health care.”
Proponents of the bill, like the Associate Director of Pro-Life and Family Policy, Marion Minor, argued that Nebraska’s ban is “doctor-friendly”. This is because LB 626 did not include criminal repercussions for doctors who provide abortion services, like in other states with similar bans. Rather, the consequence would be the removal of a doctor’s medical license.
Kinyoun works closely with the OB-GYN resident program at UNMC. She said they already hear concerns from prospective residents due to having a bill of this nature in the legislature.
“I can’t tell you how many people ask about our abortion training and our access to full comprehensive family planning care here in Nebraska,” Kinyoun said. “It’s hard to, you know, want to convince people that this is a great state to practice medicine if your license is being constantly threatened.”
Kinyoun added that LB 626 could have posed severe threats to the training residents are allowed to receive in Nebraska. Her concern comes after seeing Tennessee programs having to outsource their training.
“I have connections in Tennessee, and I know that some of the residents in Tennessee are getting sent to New York, for training for elective abortions,” Kinyoun said. “That’s a huge burden on a program. Who pays for that? You have to get a medical license in a different state. It’s just very, very complicated, but elective abortion training is a really critical part of OBGYN training.”
After testifying against LB 626, Kinyoun said she worries that the concerns of Nebraska physicians are not being accurately portrayed.
“One of the narratives around LB 626 is that the medical community has been split on this, and I just don’t think that that’s true,” Kinyoun said. “You had five physicians testify as proponents, one of which was a retired physician and one of which was flown in from Texas by a staunchly pro-life group. And then there were at least 20 of us physicians who testified on the other side with many, many more of us present at the Capitol, and many still waiting to testify.”
Crockett argued the motivation for politicians to pass this bill was about politics, not health.
“It’s a political agenda,” Crockett said. “It’s driven by being able to maintain a political position and get an election or a vote. We are asking people to listen to what we’re seeing because this is what we do all the time. When we focus on things like this, that really don’t help the health and well-being of the population, we are ignoring so many other things that could be done that would have a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of many communities in our state. And that is just really tragic.”