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Trigger bill to ban abortions fails in Nebraska Legislature

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LINCOLN — A bill that would have primed Nebraska to ban all abortions died on the floor of the Legislature Wednesday.

Legislative Bill 933 failed to receive the 33 votes it needed to end an eight-hour filibuster, which effectively renders the bill dead with no other way to move forward. The final vote was 31-15, with three senators excused. 

The bill’s failure, which was celebrated by abortion-rights proponents, leaves anti-abortion lawmakers with few options to restrict access during the final six days of the legislative session.

"Today, a small but mighty group of state senators stood strongly in support of gender equity to ensure that abortion access remains safe and legal in Nebraska," Jo Giles, executive director of the Women's Fund of Omaha said in a statement.

LB 933 would have banned all abortions in Nebraska if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, or if the U.S. Constitution or federal law is amended to give control over abortion to individual states. Such measures are referred to as trigger bills.

The Supreme Court could decide the fate of Roe v. Wade later this year. State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston said she introduced LB 933 so the Legislature could avoid a special session if the trigger event happens before the next regular session.

Protesters gathered at the Nebraska Capitol Wednesday to watch the debate from the Legislature's balcony. A group of about 50 people wearing pink shirts collected in the rotunda while the Legislature was in recess during lunch to advocate against the bill. 

After it failed Wednesday, Albrecht said she hopes voters remember who voted against the bill the next time they are up for election. She said she has no other efforts to restrict abortions this session. 

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who led the eight-hour filibuster, described LB 933 as "a church bill" brought by "Christian religious extremists." While senators criticized Hunt for taking time away from discussing other amendments, Hunt said that was her intent. 

"You're going to wait eight hours, because I'm driving this ship, and it's an eight-hour cruise," Hunt said.

LB 933, along with two other abortion-restricting bills, stalled in the Judiciary Committee in March, but was pulled out of committee through a majority vote in the Legislature.

If triggered, LB 933 would have made it a felony for anyone to provide any medication or undertake any procedure with the intent of ending the life of an unborn child, starting at fertilization. The woman undergoing an abortion, however, could not be charged.

Opponents pointed to this aspect of the bill, arguing that the language would not effectively ban all abortions but instead make it impossible for women to receive abortions safely. Lawmakers said women may instead seek out "back alley abortions" or other rumored methods that would endanger their lives. 

"Abortion needs to be protected, or otherwise it will go underground," said Sen. John McCollister of Omaha.

Opponents also criticized the bill for putting the penalty on doctors or other professionals who administer an abortion. LB 933 would not have provided exemptions, including for rape or incest, but would have allowed licensed physicians charged under the law to use as a defense that the abortion was necessary to prevent the woman’s death or serious, permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ.

Though supporters framed this as a feature that would protect doctors, other lawmakers said the doctors would still need to be charged with a felony in order to use this as a defense.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha, who previously said he always supports anti-abortion bills, said he was concerned this aspect would cost physicians thousands of dollars, and could hinder doctors' chances of continuing their profession. 

Hilkemann proposed an amendment that would remove the felony penalty for physicians. Instead, abortions would be reported to the Board of Medicine and Surgery. The Legislature did not consider Hilkemann's amendment Wednesday, but Hilkemann still voted to end debate. 

Supporters argued that doctors would also be protected by language in the bill that specifies that it is only a felony if there is an intent to kill the unborn child. Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk said no physicians have been prosecuted since the 2010 passage of legislation banning abortion in Nebraska beyond 20 weeks of conception. 

However, Sen. Jen Day of Omaha argued that the language in LB 933 was vague. Even in a scenario where a doctor is performing an abortion to save a woman's life, Day said they are still intentionally ending the fetus' life. 

"We're creating a whole new area of gray here," Day said.

Supporters continually brought back the same argument: That life begins at fertilization. 

"We need to recognize the stages inside the womb, and protect these human beings," said Sen. John Arch of La Vista.

However, opponents said this definition creates other issues, and could unintentionally ban some forms of contraception and in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Albrecht and other supporters denied this. 

Opponents continually criticized the bill's lack of exception for rape or incest cases. Supporters countered by arguing there are plenty of non-abortion options, such as adoption, for women who don't want to keep their children. Albrecht said Nebraska has more than 20 privately funded centers that help pregnant women. 

"I am pro-woman," said Sen. John Lowe of Kearney. "I am also pro-child. What we're talking about here is the murder of a child."

Sandy Danek, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, said the group would not be deterred by the defeat of LB 933, which Danek called "historic legislation."

"We believe that a mother and her child are worthy of love and support," she said in a press release. "We will continue our work with education, legislative efforts and political action until every life is protected and honored in our state.”

The two other bills that stalled in the Judiciary Committee last month would ban abortions after a certain period. LB 1086 would ban chemical abortions after seven weeks. LB 781 would ban abortions after a so-called fetal heartbeat can be detected — usually at about six weeks gestation, before most women are aware that they are pregnant.

Under current rulings, abortion is legal until the point a fetus can survive outside the womb, which is usually around 24 weeks.

That could change this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a proposed 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi. The case could end the national right to abortion enshrined by Roe v. Wade and leave the question up to states.

With a ruling likely this summer, a number of Republican-led states have passed aggressive anti-abortion legislation.

On Tuesday the Oklahoma House approved a bill that would make performing an abortion a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

In March, lawmakers in Arizona and Florida passed 15-week abortion bans.

This story has been updated since it was originally published. It includes material from the Associated Press.

ebamer@owh.com Twitter @ErinBamer

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