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The Nebraska Legislature took a step Tuesday night toward easing the state's abortion ban away from a nationally accepted standard of the viability of an unborn baby.

A bill (LB1103) that gained first-round approval would move Nebraska's ban from the 24-week standard to 20 weeks.

But changing the date of viability wasn't the intent, said Speaker Mike Flood, the sponsor of the bill.

"My bill doesn't have to do with viability. It has to do with when the fetus feels pain," Flood said. "That is a life ... worth protecting.

"To the extent there is consensus (on feeling pain), it's at 20 weeks," said Flood, of Norfolk.

At 20 weeks, the fetus will avoid painful stimuli, he said. Doctors give anesthesia to a fetus at that age when performing surgery or other procedures.

The state has a duty to define its interests in the abortion debate, he said, and an obligation to protect life. The bill would be the first of its kind -- based on pain felt by a fetus.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Flood had done the state a valuable service in bringing a bill that allowed a discussion on where the line of viability should be drawn.

"I think Speaker Flood is right. I think the line is 20 weeks," Ashford said. "There is no question that there is fetal pain. ... Discussing this issue is very, very important."

The bill advanced to second-round debate on a 38-5 vote.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, Lincoln Sen. Ken Haar and Omaha Sen. Brenda Council led the opposition to the bill, saying it was flawed, unconstitutional and put the state between a woman and her doctor.

Flood said he knew there was no more divisive issue than abortion. And it was particularly hard during the hearing on the bill to listen to situations of couples faced with advanced pregnancies in which unborn children had potentially fatal conditions. He didn't want to hurt people with his bill, he said.

"But I also ask the question, why does a baby that's going to be born with a disability become a better candidate for an abortion? Does their disability make them less human? Are they less deserving of the state's protection?" he said.

After the hearing, Flood amended the bill to include an exception in the ban to save the life of an unborn baby, with the condition of twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome in mind. That condition could endanger one or both babies.

Conrad attempted to amend the bill on a number of issues, including making viability of the unborn child the determining factor in the ban. Another would have allowed for mental health exceptions for mothers seeking abortions, in addition to physical health.

Conrad said other states that have tried to establish a bright line of viability, such as 20 weeks, have been soundly defeated in the courts.

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Less than 2 percent of abortions nationwide are past 20 weeks, she said.

"This is indeed a solution in search of a problem," Conrad said.

At one point in the debate, Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege objected to use of the f-word -- fetus -- in discussing the bill. He suggested using a list of descriptions -- unborn baby, person, human being, innocent, life, son or daughter.

Senators accepted an amendment that would have the law go into effect on Oct. 15, three months later than it normally would become operative.

The law surely would be challenged in court, Conrad said, and both sides would need time to prepare for that.

The Legislature gave first-round approval last week to a measure (LB594) that would be a first of its kind regarding preabortion screenings and counseling.

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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