LINCOLN, Neb. —Nebraska lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it tougher for women to get second-trimester or late-term abortions by requiring them to be near death or at risk of irreversible physical harm.
The Judiciary Committee sent the bill Wednesday to the full Legislature for debate. Lawmakers and others said it could set a new standard nationally, although they disagreed whether it would pass muster in a courtroom. It will almost surely land in one if it is eventually approved by lawmakers.
A woman can get an abortion in Nebraska now after a fetus is considered viable if doctors determine one is needed to preserve her life or health. There's no mention in the law of how serious the health issues must be.
By narrowing the health exception to just risk of death or substantial, irreversible physical harm, the state would be "adopting a standard the Supreme Court so far has not affirmed," said state Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha. "I don't think it balances the risk to the mother in an appropriate way," he added.
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While opposing the change to health exceptions, he supports the underlying concept in another portion of the bill.
It also would be a first in the nation, barring women from getting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the assertion fetuses feel pain by then. The current criterion is fetuses' viability, or ability to survive outside the womb.
While determined on a case-by-case basis, viability is generally attained at 22 to 24 weeks.
Abortion opponents have largely focused on the fetal pain issue, but the irreversible-physical-harm requirement tucked inside the measure is now starting to generate debate.
Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tried and failed to change the bill so women could get abortions after the 20-week mark if they were needed to avoid substantial and irreversible mental impairment as well.
Janet Crepps of the Center for Reproductive Rights said failing to include mental impairment in the bill makes it unconstitutional. She also criticized the overall language as the "most narrow health exception for the late abortions that we've seen anywhere."
The committee also advanced a bill that would require women seeking abortions to be examined by mental health practitioners to make sure they haven't been coerced or pressured into having an abortion, among other things.
Mary Spaulding Balch, legislative director for National Right to Life, said the proposal limiting exceptions to cases of serious physical impairment closes a loophole.
The current law allows for "such a broad interpretation of health that it includes threat of suicide, it includes many things people would not consider a health risk," she said.
Unlike Crepps, she said she thought it was constitutional.
Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk introduced the bill in an effort to shut down abortion provider LeRoy Carhart, one of less than a dozen late-term abortion providers nationwide.
Carhart has a clinic in the Omaha suburbs and landed in the center of the national fight over abortion after his friend and fellow late-term abortion provider George Tiller was shot to death in Wichita last year.
Carhart has said he will perform abortions up to 22 weeks for women who want them and later abortions in cases where they are medically necessary.
Flood said his bill was meant to remove some of the vagueness of the current law that doctors like Carhart use when determining whether abortions are necessary. As for the failure to provide a mental health exemption, Flood said, "there are a number of treatments available to someone with mental health issues, short of ending life."