Senators reflect after tumultuous abortion/trans health debate

May 17, 2023, midnight ·

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh speaks in the Legislature Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)
Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh speaks in the Legislature. (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

Listen To This Story

One day after a tumultuous debate on abortion and trans health care, Nebraska state senators reflected on what their actions say about the costs – and benefits – of representative democracy.

As senators debated a bill restricting transgender health care and abortion Tuesday evening, hundreds of people chanted their opposition yards away in the Nebraska Capitol rotunda.

After voting to advance the bill, most senators who supported it left by a back door, rather than walking through the rotunda.

Wednesday morning, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who opposed the bill, criticized their action.

“I have never seen such cowardice in my life. You did not have the courage to face your victims in the rotunda. The parents that you are stealing their rights away from. The children who you are harming. The doctors whose professions you are dismantling. The women whose lives you are endangering. You scurried away,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Julie Slama, who supported the bill and left by the back door, shot back at Cavanaugh.

“If you want to get up this morning and complain about procedure, that's fine. If you want to get up and be sad about how a vote didn't turn out yesterday the way you want it, that's also fine. But don't you dare get up here and spout about cowardice. When senators chose not to incite a mob of hundreds of angry protesters, that not only were packing the rotunda, but were blocking every single entrance out of this building.

Sen. Mike Moser, another supporter of the bill, agreed with Slama.

“There is nothing cowardly about leaving without walking the gauntlet through that crowd. What if the crowd had grabbed somebody? What if they had pushed somebody? What if two people had just bumped together accidentally and started a scuffle? Then the State Patrol would feel compelled to get involved. And they'd come in and try and break it up. And it could have wound up badly somebody could have gotten hurt. Could have been a senator. Could have been one of the protesters. Could have been one of the State Patrol. That's not the way to govern,” Moser said.

Sen. Megan Hunt, who opposed the bill, said she’s not afraid to confront people with whom she disagrees. As proof of that, she cited a hearing on guns a few years ago.

“There were guys with long guns standing outside my office, staring me down, blocking the door to my office. Did I go out the back entrance that I have my staff pull my car around? No, because what are you going to do, shoot me? What're you going to do bump into me, as Senator Moser said he was afraid of happening out there? They knew I wasn't going to support that gun bill. They're going to shoot me about it? I wasn't afraid of that. You guys are afraid to get bumped into by some queer teens out there. That's what you're describing. That's what you're afraid of,” Hunt said.

And Sen. Danielle Conrad, another bill opponent, said the loud protestors were justified.

“You know what? Free speech is inconvenient sometimes. And sometimes it feels really, really intense. But the reason that speech was happening was not because of procedural points of order. It was happening because legislation seeks to undermine the dignity, autonomy, civil rights and human rights of women, families and trans youth,” Conrad said.

Sen. John Lowe, who supported the abortion and trans health restrictions, said he DID walk out through the opponents in the rotunda, and all that happened was they yelled at him. Lowe said he wasn’t afraid, and while people should listen to criticism if justified, they need to be guided by their values.

“It seems like we run on emotion here anymore. ‘Will this hurt my feelings?’ Not if it's right or not. It's about feelings. And ‘Should I do this because it's politically correct?’ It's not about what's right or not. And what we did yesterday 33 of us believe it is right,” Lowe said.

A final vote on the abortion/trans health bill, LB574, has not yet been scheduled.