OMAHA - A federal judge is expected to rule Wednesday on whether a new Nebraska law requiring health screenings for women seeking abortions can go into effect on Thursday as planned.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp peppered attorneys with questions about the law on Tuesday during a hearing on a request to issue a preliminary injunction that would keep the state from enforcing the law while a lawsuit moves through the courts. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland is challenging the law and wants the injunction.
Most of the questions were directed at the state attorney defending the law.
The measure would require women wanting abortions to be screened by doctors or other health professionals to determine whether they were pressured into having the procedure. Women also would have to be screened for risk factors indicating if they could have mental or physical problems after an abortion.
The risks could be "physical, psychological, emotional, demographic, or situational," according to the law.
Smith Camp asked what the purpose of the law was if, as supporters of it have said, it would require abortion providers to use the same type of medical judgment that doctors performing other procedures use. The law requires doctors to screen women before a planned abortion for risk factors cited in peer-reviewed journals indexed by two major medical and scientific listing services -- something that's not required before other medical procedures.
Assistant Attorney General Katherine Spohn said the requirement is needed because there are "perceived inadequacies" in the amount of information women get from abortion providers.
Smith Camp also asked why the same types of requirements don't exist for other medical procedures that are potential threats to women if the intent of the law is to protect them. Spohn said there is a "perceived lack of clarity" provided to women about the risks of abortions.
Backers of the law have said that only doctors who don't follow protocols outlined in the law would face civil penalties, but Smith Camp said it appeared that abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood could be sued. Spohn disagreed.
Smith Camp questioned whether the law would have a chilling effect on abortion providers, essentially scaring them into not performing abortions.
"Isn't the purpose of the bill to ensure there are no abortion providers in the state of Nebraska?" the judge asked.
Spohn said that type of intent is not stated in the bill approved by lawmakers last spring.
Another bill passed by lawmakers last spring would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks, and that measure is set to go into effect Oct. 15.
That ban is based on assertions from some doctors that fetuses feel pain by that stage of development.
It initially drew threats of a legal challenge, but attorneys on both sides of the debate have recently theorized that the law might be allowed to stand over fears that losing a challenge to it would change the legal landscape for abortion.