Legislative elections to determine fate of abortion bills

Sept. 30, 2022, midnight ·

Question mark over Nebraska legislative chamber
Those who sit in the Nebaska Legislature will have a decisive impact on abortion legislation.

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This year’s elections for the Nebraska Legislature could determine what changes – if any – will be made next year to laws governing abortion in Nebraska.

It was getting towards the end of a meet-and-greet session between candidates and their supporters at Lincoln’s Pro-Life Center, when one man raised a question.

“I guess I’d like to know, what sort of legislation is going to be brought forward in the next year or two as far as prolife legislation, because we always have pro-life people, but we never seem to have something that ends abortions,” he said.

State Sen. Rob Clements ventured an answer.

“There will be an abortion restriction bill coming. It’s being worked on – we haven’t got something final. The letter that went to the governor asking for a special session was a 12-week ban. And I would expect something like that, or maybe more restrictive. It really depends on who gets elected in November – how conservative and how many pro-life senators are elected,” Clements said.

At a rally of abortion rights supporters in Omaha, legislative candidate John Fredrickson made a similar point.

“We are at such a pivotal point in our state. The outcome of our elections this November are going to have significant impact on what Nebraska looks like in five years, in ten years and fifteen years. And you better believe that reproductive freedom is on the ballot,” Fredrickson said.

Abortion up to 20 weeks after fertilization is still legal in Nebraska – but that legal status hangs in precarious balance in the Legislature. In April, supporters of a complete ban came within two votes of overcoming a filibuster against the bill. In August, advocates of a ban after 12 weeks fell three votes short of having enough senators for Gov. Pete Ricketts to call a special session.

Twenty five seats in the 49-member Legislature are up for grabs in November. And about half those races, all in the Lincoln and Omaha areas, pit abortion opponents against abortion rights supporters, judging by endorsements and public statements of the candidates.

One such race is in Legislative District 18, in the Bennington-Elkhorn-northwest Omaha area. The race pits Christy Armendariz, endorsed by the Nebraska Right to Life Political Action Committee, against Michael Young, endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska.

The candidates don’t just disagree about abortion. They disagree about how important the issue seems to voters as they campaign. Armendariz says it doesn’t come up much.

“I try to visit 200, 250 doors a week, and I would say at the top of that number, I get maybe three people a week asking where I stand on the abortion issue. Some weeks I don't get any,” Armendariz said.

By contrast, Young says many more voters bring up abortion when he’s knocking on doors.

“I would typically say it’s probably 40 to 50 for every 200 – easily 20 percent of the time,” Young said.

After voters have their say, and the new lineup of senators is in place, strategists on both sides of the issue will determine how to proceed. For those who favor more abortion restrictions, the question may be whether to repeat last year’s attempt at a complete ban, or to try for something less. For example, allowing exceptions to a ban in cases of rape or incest could attract more support among senators.

Sandy Danek of Nebraska Right to Life says choosing which policy to pursue poses a tough question.

Sandy Danek
Sandy Danek (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

“Certainly the work that I do that tells me every life is precious and that no life should end because of its circumstances of conception. But I have to be realistic about what we can politically achieve as well. And what can Nebraska politically achieve? It might be an incremental process, But it's one we fought for 50 years. So we'll stay the course. And we'll look for the best legislation that we can provide that will save the majority of lives, in addition to sparing a woman from the physical and emotional trauma of abortion,” Danek said.

But Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood sees no room for compromise with abortion opponents.

Andi Curry Grubb
Andi Curry Grubb (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

“Whatever compromise they think they can come up with next year because they don't end up with the votes that they need to pass the bill they really want to pass, it's just a matter of time. So the more we let them chip away continually at these rights and at this health care, the more leeway we're giving them to ultimately get what they want, which is to ban it outright, one hundred percent and completely,” Curry Grubb said.

And so it looks like the stage will be set for a battle between those who want more restrictions, and those who want to maintain the status quo. It takes a two-thirds majority – 33 senators in the 49-member Legislature – to overcome a filibuster and pass a bill. Conversely, it takes 17 senators to stop a proposal. The numbers are close, and November’s election will decide how many senators are on either side of the issue.

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