LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers began debate Wednesday on a bill that would ban abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, which is generally around the sixth week of pregnancy and before most women even know they are pregnant.
But the effort to pass the so-called heartbeat bill in the Republican-controlled state remains in question after a GOP co-signer of the bill introduced an amendment to adjust the proposal to 12 weeks, signaling that a ban set very early in pregnancy could face pushback even from those who want further restrictions.
Debate remained collegial, if impassioned, during the first several hours, with supporters of the bill quoting Bible verses and extolling personal and religious beliefs that life begins at conception. Sen. Steve Halloran, of Hastings, who is white, claimed that the legalization of abortion in the U.S. had its roots not in choice for women, but in a racist plot to “kill off the Black race.”
Opponents of the bill said it will strip women of their right to bodily autonomy, would put them at financial and medical risk, and would drive medical professionals and others concerned about abortion access out of the state.
“This bill puts women at risk. It puts doctors at risk,” said Sen. Danielle Conrad, of Lincoln, who referred to news reports in the past year of women and girls who were unable to get immediate abortion care following rapes or in the face of life-threatening complications because of their states’ abortion bans. “Those are real things, and you’re bringing them to Nebraska.”
Sen. Joni Albrecht, of Thurston, who introduced the bill, said she understood there are strong opinions centered on abortion access.
“This bill is about babies with beating hearts, and they deserve to be protected,” she said.
The debate drew hundreds of people both for and against the bill to the Capitol, where dueling rallies by abortion rights and anti-abortion groups were held over the noon hour Wednesday.
Sen. Merv Riepe, of Ralston, introduced an amendment last month to push the ban to 12 weeks, saying he was concerned that the current proposal, introduced by might not give women enough time to know that they’re pregnant. But he later made clear that he would vote to advance Albrecht’s bill Wednesday if the vote is close, and he stood with those at the anti-abortion rally on Wednesday.
“I wanted to have some dialogue,” Riepe said a day after he introduced the amendment. “And I think I’m clearly on the record that I will be … the 33rd vote to move it.”
Albrecht has said she believes she has the votes to advance her bill, which includes exceptions for cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
Lawmakers on Wednesday took up the first of three rounds of debate the bill must survive to pass. Opponents promised to filibuster the bill, meaning they will force debate to stretch the full eight hours before a vote to end debate can be taken. Whether the bill advances from the first round will hinge on any lawmakers who might defect from the Legislature’s conservative or left-leaning coalitions on the issue.
Nebraska has the only single-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature in the United States. But each of its 49 lawmakers identify as Republican or Democrat and tend 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 the bill advances or dies for the year.
That 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, even those resulting from rape and incest, 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 trigger bill fell two votes short of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster.
The failure came as a surprise in a state that, to that point, had a history as a leader in abortion restrictions. In 2010, Nebraska enacted the country’s first law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the disputed theory that a fetus at that point can feel pain.
But Nebraska anti-abortion advocates have watched in frustration as other GOP-controlled states have moved quickly to ban or restrict abortion access since the fall of Roe. Abortion is already effectively banned at all stages of pregnancy in more than a dozen states. That number would be higher, except that courts have blocked bans in another six states.
Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, has been a vocal proponent of the bill and has said he will sign it if it passes.