Bill to restrict abortions falls one vote short

April 27, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Merv Riepe speaks to reporters after Thursday's vote (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Merv Riepe speaks to reporters after Thursday's vote (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal that would have prohibited most abortions in Nebraska after about six weeks of pregnancy fell one vote short in a dramatic vote Thursday in the Legislature.

It takes 33 votes to cut off debate and vote on a bill in the Legislature. Thursday, supporters of abortion restrictions got 32.

Sen. Merv Riepe, who supported the bill on first round debate two weeks ago, offered an amendment proposing a ban after 12 weeks. But supporters of the stricter measure argued against that.

That set the stage for a roll call vote on cloture, or cutting off debate to vote on the bill itself. When his name was called, Riepe replied “not voting,” which has the same effect as a ‘no’ vote.

Supporters of the bill still had one chance, with Sen. Justin Wayne, who has in the past abstained from voting on abortion restrictions. Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler called his name, and after a pause of 15 seconds that seemed much longer, Wayne responded “not voting.” Asked later what he was thinking, Wayne declined to comment.

Under longstanding policy, which Speaker John Arch reiterated in February, if a bill fails to get cloture, it’s dead for the rest of the session. Asked if that’s the case after this vote, Arch nodded yes, but then left the chamber without further comment.

Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters celebrated with raucous cheering in the Capitol Rotunda just outside the legislative chamber:

Gov. Jim Pillen, a supporter of abortion restrictions, quickly issued a statement calling on Riepe to reconsider, saying quote “It is unacceptable for senators to be present and not voting on such a momentous vote.”

Riepe could not immediately be reached for comment after Pillen’s statement. But in an interview shortly after the vote, he explained why he abstained.

“It was tough. A lot of it was in hopes that we can get a 12-week (limit) which I think is more sustainable. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. I want something that’s (got) fewer problems than what’s going on in a lot of the states,” Riepe said.

The dramatic vote followed four hours of debate on the bill, which was up for the second of three votes it would have required for passage. At the beginning of Thursday’s debate Sen. Joni Albrecht, chief sponsor of the bill, framed the issue simply:

“I'm going to refresh everyone on what LB626 is really all about: It's one thing – it’s protecting babies with beating hearts from elective abortion,” Albrecht said.

And Sen. Wendy DeBoer framed her opposition.

“Ultimately I cannot support this bill. And that's because the government should not be involved in these very personal decisions. Government shouldn't be involved in these very personal decisions. It's not what government's for,” DeBoer said.

Albrecht’s proposal would have prohibited abortions after cardiac activity is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies.

Introducing his amendment, Riepe described his thinking.

“I find the loss of a child and the loss of an unborn through an abortion is a tragic and unfortunate occurrence. I stand against selective abortions for of convenience. In an ideal world, every child would have the opportunity to live thrive and experience a fulfilling life. However, we must acknowledge, we do not live in a utopian society and we face challenges in life that make it difficult to achieve this ideal,” he said.

Sen. Carol Blood urged her fellow senators to maintain Nebraska’s existing law, which prohibits abortions 20 weeks after fertilization.

“I can tell you that the vast majority of Nebraskans that I meet are happy with how the laws are right now. And they don't want you in the doctor's office making decisions for them that may, at one time or another, endanger their lives, the lives of their family, the lives of their children, their sisters, their aunts, their grandmothers. Shame on you for trying to make that decision for them,” Blood said.

Sen. Mike Jacobson supported the six-week ban.

“We like to talk a lot about women's rights versus the life of the unborn child. Those are where the two sides are at. If you can separate this and call this a health care issue, it doesn't feel so bad. Until you realize of course that we're terminating a human life. Oh gosh, that sounds a little different,” Jacobson said.

Sen. Megan Hunt said even if the bill passed, women would still continue to get abortions.

“Our advocates in Nebraska are ready. We are together, we are organized. And no matter what happens with LB626, we will never allow the reproductive rights of Nebraskans to be further stripped away. And there is nothing that government can do to us that we won't make up for in mutual aid, in mutual support. Because when the government doesn't have our backs, we have our backs,” Hunt said.

With Thursday’s vote, it appears that proposition won’t be tested further this year.

This was the cloture vote on LB626
This was the cloture vote on LB626