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Nebraska could be headed toward more restrictive abortion law
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Nebraska could be headed toward more restrictive abortion law

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted a comment Wednesday about Alabama's newly signed bill that would restrict abortion in nearly every circumstance and Georgia's heartbeat bill. He got quick feedback on social media. 

Ricketts tweeted: "Nebraska is a pro-life state, and we support the brave pro-life champions and their work in Alabama and Georgia."

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt tweeted back: "It is not pro-life to force survivors of rape and incest, many of them children, to give birth. You are not pro-life. You are pro-forced birth, and it is ugly."

Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb decried Ricketts’ support of Alabama’s GOP governor for signing the most stringent abortion legislation in the nation — making performing an abortion a felony in nearly all cases.

“As Gov. Ricketts applauds a radical bill that will literally put doctors in jail for 99 years and mean more women dying because they cannot access a safe abortion, this is a good time to remember the only thing that will help us achieve the goal of fewer abortions is comprehensive sex education and access to birth control,” Kleeb said.

MaKenna Gier was upset that Ricketts presumed to speak for the state. She wrote on Facebook: "Are we going to ignore the fact that our governor, Pete Ricketts, posted to social media about how the entirety of Nebraska supports the pro-life, anti-abortion laws stemming from Alabama and Georgia? I hope not!"

She called his statement "incredibly false, inaccurate and honestly, messed up," saying a large number of people were outraged by it. 

Ricketts later issued a statement, saying fetuses are the most vulnerable life.

"They don't have their own voice. So that's why we've been congratulating other states that have been going out there and passing pro-life legislation," he said. "We are going to continue to look for the pro-life legislation we can pass here in our state. We've passed a number of bills here, and we want to continue to do that."

State representatives have said the aim of passing the restrictive laws is to get them in front of the U.S. Supreme Court so that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established women have the right to an abortion, can be overturned. A number of cases are nearing the Supreme Court.

Back in 2010, Nebraska was one of the first states to pass what was at that time one of the most restrictive abortion bills, the so-called fetal pain bill. It prohibited most abortions past 20 weeks' gestation, except if a woman’s life would be endangered or her physical health severely compromised.

Since then, Nebraska abortion bills have been ones that more or less chip away at making it more complicated to get them, including bills regulating informed consent, public funding, insurance coverage, notification, mandatory counseling and wait times. And Choose Life license plates.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston has carried several abortion-related bills since her election in 2016. She said last week that Sen. John Arch of Papillion and Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair have recently asked her if she would step aside and allow them to carry a so-called "fetal heartbeat" bill, possibly next session. 

It would prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually in the sixth to eighth week of pregnancy. Four states have passed heartbeat bills this year. 

Albrecht said she would have absolutely introduced such a bill this session if she had been asked.

This year, she carried a bill, now making its way through debate, that would have doctors inform women starting a medication abortion to seek information from a state Department of Health and Human Services website to find immediate medical assistance if they change their minds about aborting a fetus after taking that first drug, mifepristone.

Being pro-life, Albrecht said, she is excited about states moving to restrict abortions, "but I also hope that we're all mindful of what's right for the woman."

Albrecht is dismayed so many women are getting abortions, she said. 

"We need to start educating at a very young age. We need to get parents involved in what's happening in the world, and get their children to understand," she said. "I think if people had more of a moral compass on this they would understand that. ... We need to start talking about things differently and not thinking that it's just so easy to just take a life."

In 2017, 1,958 abortions were recorded in Nebraska. That number had been decreasing most years since 2000, when there were 4,178. Still, it's shocking to Albrecht, she said, that there were so many in 2017. 

Hansen, a chiropractor, confirmed he is looking into introducing a heartbeat bill, depending on the timing and being able to craft good legislation. The key is looking at laws in other states that fall into Nebraska's 8th Circuit Court district, he said.

"Right now, it's just a thought," he said.

Hansen said he will study the possibility over the interim.

He has talked to Arch about it, he said, and it could be a matter of multiple senators getting together, making sure they are listening to the people and representing their districts and the state accordingly.

Arch, however, clarified a heartbeat bill is not a priority for him and he has no plans to study such a bill over the interim. 

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he isn't interested in passing any bill that he recognizes as being unconstitutional, if such a bill would come through the committee he oversees, or if one would be debated.

He would prefer some other state have the test case, he said. Most of the heartbeat bills have been challenged by the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. Under the current legal system, those bills would be an unconstitutional exercise of states' power, Lathrop said.  

"I don't think Nebraska needs to join a group of states that are passing bills that are clearly in violation of precedents from our United States Supreme Court," he said.

Iowa passed a heartbeat bill last year, and in January an Iowa county district court judge declared the law violates that state's constitution and issued an injunction to stop it from going into effect. 

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who is Catholic and pro-reproductive rights, and voted against advancing Albrect's abortion-reversal bill, said public policy should be based on things that improve the quality of life for the state's citizens.

"And taking this time on very polarizing divisive issues that do not move (our state) forward is frustrating," she said. 

She said she would rather see the Legislature focused on giving women, children and families the support they need so that if they are in a crisis they have choices.

Senators should also be ensuring young people get comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, Cavanaugh said.

"If we really truly care about reducing abortion in the state, we need to do more investment in preventative, not restrictive," she said. "And I don't hear that conversation happening in this Legislature, or any Legislature."

Restricting abortions isn't the way to reduce them, because women who are desperate are still going to get them, she said, and it's just not going to be safe. 

"And I value the life of the mother," she said. "And I value the life of the unborn. (But) it is not my job to tell any woman what to do with her body. It is my job to make sure that she can make the choices that are right for her and her family, and that she has the supports she needs to live a full and happy life."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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