Nebraska senators made a pre-emptive strike to prevent telemedicine abortions Tuesday, advancing a bill that would make it a felony for a doctor to perform a medical abortion from a remote location.
The bill, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton, requires that a physician be physically present in the room when an abortion is performed, induced or attempted by instrument, device, medicine, drug or other substance.
Senators voted 34-9 to advance the bill to second-round debate.
Fulton said the bill is necessary because the abortion industry is changing and Nebraska laws need to continue to ensure patient safety.
The bill was not intended as a ban on RU-486, he said, which is an artificial steroid that blocks progesterone, a hormone needed to continue a pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland announced in March it would expand in Nebraska, with six new satellite facilities outside Lincoln and Omaha.
While Planned Parenthood does not offer telemedicine abortions in Nebraska, it does offer them at satellite clinics in Iowa.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland President Jill June said creating a bill targeting women seeking safe and legal abortions is unconstitutional and an insult to Nebraska women.
"In their ideological quest to stop abortion care, anti-choice legislators don't realize how this bill puts the women of Nebraska at a severe disadvantage in receiving quality care," she said.
Restricting access will not end abortion, she said. It will only put additional burdens on a woman during a challenging time for her and her family.
With LB521 as amended by the Judiciary Committee, a doctor violating its requirements would be guilty of a Class IV felony, punishable by as many as five years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.
Opponents of the bill took much of the three hours of debate establishing whether LB521 was necessary from legal, policy and practical aspects.
Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad said the bill is "completely unnecessary." This type of abortion is not happening in Nebraska, she said, and already is prohibited in the rules and regulations of the licensure of the state's health care professionals.
There is no scientific or medical evidence the procedure carries any greater risk than any other telemedicine or pharmaceutical procedure, she said.
"I contend the intent of LB521, rather than prohibiting a practice that isn't occurring in Nebraska, is nothing more than an ongoing assault on women's health and women's rights," Conrad said.
Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill said the Legislature should be investing more of its time on ideas for preventing unplanned pregnancies.
"I would kill to see a bill in here hit the floor that actually focused on that," McGill said.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Ashford of Omaha said the bill, which was advanced from committee on a 5-3 vote, effectively would ban abortions in the first seven weeks of pregnancy.
The requirements of the bill would place an undue burden -- a constitutional test for a law -- on access to early abortion, he said.
Doctors will not want to risk criminal penalties for providing RU-486 and then not staying with the woman until the abortion is complete, which can take several days.
"That is simply not going to happen in the case of medically induced abortions," Ashford said. "I'm concerned about advancing a bill again that would be enjoined if it is enacted."
The Legislature passed a bill (LB594) last year that provided for additional pre-abortion screenings and counseling.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp stopped enforcement of the law, saying it created a profoundly chilling effect on doctors' willingness to perform abortions. And, she said, it created substantial obstacles to a woman's right to choose abortion.
Fulton came to Tuesday's debate armed with a Nebraska attorney general's informal opinion that abortions may be regulated differently than other medical procedures and that LB521 does not impose an undue burden or create a substantial obstacle to an abortion in Nebraska.
Julie Schmit-Albin, Nebraska Right to Life executive director, issued a statement commending the action of senators in recognizing that abortion, by court precedent, can be treated differently than other procedures.
With current laws stating that only a licensed physician can perform an abortion, she said, it makes sense for the law also to reflect that with the advent of chemical abortions, a physician must be physically present when inducing an abortion.