Nebraska could become the first state to require doctors to screen women for possible mental and physical problems before performing abortions under a bill that received final approval from the Legislature on Monday.
Gov. Dave Heineman's office said Monday he will sign the bill Tuesday, along with another groundbreaking abortion measure lawmakers are expected to pass then. That bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks based on the assertion that fetuses feel pain.
Both bills are likely to be challenged in court. Abortion rights activists describe the measure passed Monday as a drastic shift in abortion policy that would block abortions by scaring doctors who might perform them. They say the second bill is aimed at blocking late-term abortions in one of the few states where there's a doctor willing to perform them.
Abortion foes defend both bills. They say the one passed Monday could help prevent post-abortion medical problems and brings pre-abortion screenings in line with what is done before other types of medical procedures.
Potential risk factors?
The bill requires a doctor or other health professional to screen women to determine whether they were pressured into having abortions. Doctors also must assess whether women have risk factors that could lead to mental or physical problems after an abortion.
The bill is unusual, however, in spelling out what doctors must look for. They include any risk factors cited in peer-reviewed journals indexed by two major medical and scientific listing services during the year before a planned abortion. The risks could be "physical, psychological, emotional, demographic, or situational," according to the bill.
"It's very difficult to know for certain if you're complying with this bill," said Kyle Carlson, an attorney for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "There's an undetermined amount of documentation you have to go through to know all the...risk factors."
Also, the information could change daily as articles in peer-reviewed journals are released.
The lawmaker who introduced the bill, Sen. Cap Dierks of Ewing, has said the reviews are manageable because there have only been a couple hundred published studies on the topic over the last decade or so.
Abortion opponents also say the requirement is important because otherwise doctors would follow accepted medical standards — which are likely to be set by fellow abortion providers.
"We're dealing with destruction of early, unborn life, so we ought to take extra care," said Greg Schleppenbach of the National Catholic Conference.
Woman could file suit
Doctors would have to tell patients whether they had any of the risk factors cited in the journals, but they could perform abortions even if risk factors existed.
If a screening was not done, a woman could file a civil suit. Doctors would not face criminal charges, nor would they lose their medical licenses.
Abortion opponents acknowledge that it could reduce the number of abortions in the state, which numbered 2,551 last year.
Planned Parenthood of Heartland will "figure out a way to make this work" and continue providing abortions, spokeswoman Julie Stauch said. But doctors at some hospitals might stop, she said.
Women already undergo an extensive screening for medical problems that might be complicated by an abortion and the procedure isn't performed if the risks are too great, Planned Parenthood officials said. With the new requirements, women could be overwhelmed by a flood of possibly irrelevant information, Stauch said.
She likened it to being handed an enormous list of options by a doctor after being told you might have cancer.
"Does it make your decision easier or harder? And does it make it harder for valid reasons?" she said.