State Senator aims to ‘right a wrong’ with bill that would allow abortions for fatal fetal anomalies

Feb. 21, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Nebraska State Senator Merv Riepe in his office Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska State Senator Merv Riepe in his office. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

State Senator Merv Riepe said in a public hearing on Thursday he made a mistake last year when he didn’t insist Nebraska’s 12-week abortion ban allow exceptions in the case of fatal fetal anomalies.

Through LB1109, Riepe said he’s righting his wrongs. The bill would allow abortions for deadly diagnoses up to 20 weeks of gestation and mitigate legal consequences for doctors performing abortions in those cases.

The state senator and retired hospital executive from Ralston claimed making exceptions would affect no more than 10 Nebraskans a year, according to his conversations with a medical professional.

“I need to fix the 12-week ban in this session and uphold my commitment,” Riepe said. “I failed last session to hold to my expectations. And we have an incomplete law.”

Several women testified during the public hearing about their experiences receiving a fatal diagnosis during a pregnancy. One of those women was Tiffany Palmer, who learned in 2018 she was carrying a fetus with Trisomy 18, a chromosomal condition with no treatment that is usually fatal before or shortly after birth.

Palmer said the conversation around abortion now seems more complicated to her.

“Growing up, abortion had always been a dirty word. Prior to my experience, if someone was to ask me the definition it was pretty cut and dry: it was a woman who did not want the child she conceived,” she said. “But no one talks about termination for medical reasons.”

Through tears, Palmer encouraged lawmakers to support LB1109.

“When thinking about abortion, please understand it’s not only for unwed mothers who had a one-night stand, it’s a healthcare option for those who want a child but nature gave them the short end of the stick.”

Other women opposed the bill and shared how they chose to continue their pregnancies after a fatal diagnosis, like Callie Higgins. Her third son was diagnosed with Trisomy 13 at 20 weeks. Higgins carried the pregnancy through birth and spent 26 hours with her baby.

“We were so thankful for the one day we got with him and the memories we got to make,” she said. “Having a baby die may be one of the hardest, most sad circumstances to walk through in this life. But actively choosing to end the life of a baby will not make it any easier.”

Robert Bonebrake, a medical doctor specializing in fetal and maternal health, opposed the bill. He said diagnoses can be inaccurate.

“I have been wrong. I’ve seen others be wrong,” Bonebrake said. “I still receive Christmas cards year after year from families and their growing children that I diagnosed would not be able to live outside the uterus.”

Representatives from ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Fund of Omaha testified in neutral positions, generally protesting the government’s involvement in reproductive decisions while telling lawmakers the amendment could help more Nebraskans access care.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that LB1109 proposes removing felony consequences for anyone who performs an abortion in violation of Nebraska law. That is incorrect, the bill proposes mitigating legal consequences for doctors who perform abortions in the event of a fatal fetal anomaly.