Restrictions on abortion, trans health care poised for final vote

May 16, 2023, midnight ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Restrictions on abortion and on health care for transgender youth are poised for final passage, following a day of dramatic debate in the Nebraska Legislature Tuesday.

Tuesday’s debate combined two of the most controversial subjects in this legislative session: abortion and transgender health care.

Nearly three weeks ago, it appeared abortion restrictions were dead for this year, when a proposed ban on the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy failed by one vote.

At that time, Sen. Merv Riepe refused to support the proposal, saying a 12-week ban was more reasonable. Tuesday, Sen. Ben Hansen offered a 12-week ban as an amendment to a separate proposal by Sen. Kathleen Kauth, to restrict certain medical procedures for transgender youth. Riepe supported Hansen’s amendment.

“I believe most Nebraskans feel 12 weeks with reasonable exceptions is a sensible, a reasonable compromise that protects the unborn, respects women's reproductive rights, and is legally defensible,” Riepe said.

Originally, the transgender health bill would have prohibited puberty blockers, hormone treatments and surgery to help youth under 19 transition between genders. Under Hansen’s amendment, surgery would still be prohibited, but other treatments would be permitted under rules and regulations to be determined by the state’s chief medical officer.

Kauth said her research had convinced her that young people wanting to change gender is a result of “social contagion.”

“I came to understand how much this movement is really affecting children -- how these drugs and these surgeries and the idea that they can change their biological sex is negatively impacting our children. Our kids deserve the right to grow up and to understand their bodies and to not make those decisions before they are adults,” Kauth said.

Opposing the bill, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh warned fellow senators against restricting parents’ ability to decide what health treatments are best for their children.

“You will have set a precedent that it is okay when it is for the greater good in your mind, and that a future Legislature may just decide ‘There's another looming pandemic. We cannot entrust parents to ensure the health and safety of their own children. We will require that they vaccinate them,’” she said.

Cavanaugh said she made sure her kids were vaccinated against COVID, but didn’t want to impose her preferences on any other parents.

Sen. Steve Halloran supported the trans health restrictions.

“I stand in full support of LB574, because I'm opposed to allowing children to make decisions that would mutilate their bodies either surgically or chemically,” Halloran said.

As the debate carried on, opposing groups of bill supporters and opponents gathered in the Capitol rotunda.

At one point, supporters sang ”Amazing Grace,” while opponents chanted “Jesus loves trans kids.” As afternoon wore into evening, more and more opponents of the bill showed up, dominating the rotunda and chanting things like ‘My body, my choice.”

The chants could be heard within the legislative chamber where senators were debating, just yards away. At one point, Sen. Megan Hunt, a leading opponent of the bill, referred to one of the chants.

“You know what they're chanting out there? I just got it. They're chanting ‘One more vote to save our lives,’” Hunt said.

Kauth, the bill’s sponsor, said that’s what she was trying to do with her legislation.

“As we hear the people outside chanting ‘One vote to save our lives,’ I would agree with that statement. We have one vote to save the lives of children from a lifetime of pain and regret,” she said.

Because the transgender bill was at the final stage of consideration, there were only two hours allowed for debate. Senators did argue about procedure for about another three hours. But very little time was spent discussing abortion.

Sen. John Cavanaugh argued that Hansen’s 12-week ban was actually 10 weeks, since it began counting from a woman’s last menstrual period, rather than from fertilization, as Riepe’s earlier proposal had done.

Cavanaugh also argued that trans health care and abortion were two different subjects and should not be contained in the same bill, an argument that may be made later in court.

But Sen. Julie Slama said both proposals were about letting children grow, either before or after birth.

Senators voted 33-15 to attach the abortion amendment to the transgender health bill. Under the state constitution senators must now let the bill sit for at least one day before taking a final vote, which won’t take place until Thursday at the earliest.