LINCOLN, Neb. — An effort to advance a bill that would ban abortion around the sixth week of pregnancy fell one vote short of breaking a filibuster in the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday.
This means the bill is unlikely to move forward this year, despite Republican Gov. Jim Pillen making a public call for just that. The Legislature adjourned immediately after the failed vote and won’t reconvene until Tuesday.
It was the second straight year that an effort to restrict abortion access in the state failed. Nebraska currently bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, a law that has been in place since 2010.
The bill would have banned abortion once cardiac activity can be detected.
On Thursday, a vote to end debate so the bill could advance to a final round of debate failed 32-15. The motion needed 33 votes.
Cheers erupted outside the doors of the legislative chamber when the last vote was cast, as opponents of the bill waved signs and chanted, “Whose house? Our house!”
Among them was Pat Neal, 72, of Lincoln, who has been fighting for abortion rights since she received an abortion in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision guaranteed the right to abortion nationwide.
“I was 11 weeks pregnant and in the middle of a divorce,” Neal said, noting she was fearful of her husband, a Vietnam combat veteran who was “carrying some demons.”
Neal, like most in the crowd, expressed shock at the vote’s failure.
“This gives me hope for the future,” she said. “It gives me hope that the direction we’ve been seeing — across the country — could turn around.”
The bill failed to get the crucial 33rd vote when Sen. Merv Riepe abstained. He was a cosigner of the bill, but expressed concern earlier this year that a six-week ban might not give women enough time to even know they were pregnant.
Riepe, a former hospital administrator from Ralston, introduced an amendment Thursday that would have extended the proposed ban to 12 weeks and add to the bill’s list of exceptions any fetal anomalies deemed incompatible with life.
When he received pushback from fellow Republicans on the amendment, Riepe took to the mic to warn his conservative colleagues that they should heed signs that abortion will galvanize women to vote them out of office. He offered up his own election last year as an example, noting that in a four-person race, he emerged with about 45% of the vote in the May primary and was a whopping 27 points ahead of his nearest contender.
But after the Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down Roe, his margin of victory in the general election against that same challenger — a Democrat who made abortion rights central to her campaign — dropped to just under 5 percentage points.
“We must embrace the future of reproductive rights,” he said.
The failed Nebraska bill included exceptions for cases of rape, incest and medical emergencies that threaten the life of the mother and made specific exceptions for ectopic pregnancies and IVF procedures. It also allowed for the removal of a fetus that has died in the womb. It did not ascribe criminal penalties to either women who receive or doctors who perform abortions. Instead, it would have subjected doctors who perform abortions in violation of the measure to professional discipline, which could include losing their medical licenses.
Opponents seemed prepared to back Riepe’s amendment by the end of debate, but focused mostly on concerns about the bill, saying it was ambiguous and might make medical professionals subject to criminal penalties — in particular a 1977 state law that makes abortion performed outside of accepted medical procedures a felony.
“Doctors are not going to have an adequate opportunity to know what’s going on with this law,” Sen. John Cavanaugh said.
The bill’s author, Thurston Sen. Joni Albrecht, rejected that argument, saying it “is the friendliest pro-life bill out there” to the medical community. But she rejected a compromise bill introduced by Omaha Sen. Jen Day that would explicitly exempt women and medical professionals from criminal penalties associated with an abortion.
“This is simply not necessary,” Albrecht said. She also rejected Riepe’s amendment, objecting to giving pregnant people 12 weeks to get an abortion because her 6-week proposal “was a big compromise” from the total abortion ban — which had no exceptions for rape or incest — she introduced and failed to get passed last year.
“This bill is about one thing,” she said. “It’s protecting babies with beating hearts from elective abortion.”
Nebraska has the only single-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature in the United States. But each of its 49 lawmakers identifies as Republican or Democrat and tends to propose and vote for legislation along party lines. Republicans hold 32 seats, while Democrats hold 17 seats. Although bills can advance with a simple majority, it takes a supermajority — 33 votes — to end debate to overcome a filibuster. So a single lawmaker breaking from the party line could decide whether a bill advances or dies for the year.
The close divide played heavily in the defeat last year of Albrecht’s so-called trigger bill that would have automatically banned nearly all abortions in the state as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed the right to abortion nationwide for nearly five decades. That bill fell two votes short.
In the vote to advance the abortion bill earlier this year, Sen. Mike McDonnell, a Democrat, voted with Republicans. His reason, he said, is that he is a devout Roman Catholic who has always campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate. McDonnell voted to end debate Thursday, while another Democrat, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, abstained.
Pillen, the newly-elected governor who had been eager to sign the bill into law, issued a statement calling on Riepe to reconsider voting for the bill, but the statement was issued after the Legislature had already adjourned. It’s not clear whether Riepe could even make a motion to reconsider when the body reconvenes.
Jo Giles, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, was brought to tears outside the legislative chamber after the vote.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “This was unexpected, but we’re so glad to have this win. We have fought so hard. This bill is not what the majority of women in this state wanted.”