Surprise move puts further abortion restrictions in question

March 15, 2023, midnight ·

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)

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A surprise move by a state senator today/Wednesday calls into question what -- if any -- further restrictions on abortion may be enacted this year in Nebraska.

Sen. Merv Riepe was a cosponsor of Sen. Joni Albrecht’s bill to prohibit abortions once cardiac activity is detected – usually about six weeks into pregnancy. But Wednesday, Riepe filed an amendment to extend that time limit to 12 weeks. Riepe said he thinks Albrecht’s earlier deadline would, as a practical matter, put abortions out of reach for many people.

“It's a ban on abortions. I think that's extreme,” Riepe said.

Albrecht said she’s shocked by Riepe’s action.

“I don't know why he signed on to the bill, why he voted it out of committee. He sat through all of the testimony, listened very intently, so I have no idea why he has changed his tune on how he feels about it,” Albrecht said.

Riepe said he was hasty when he agreed to support Albrecht’s bill, which supporters refer to as the ‘heartbeat bill.’”

“Yes, I did sign on it. I would have to say, shame on me. I didn't get more information because I didn't have time. Everything was moving quick,” he said.

Asked if he didn’t realize it was a six-week ban, Riepe replied “I knew was a heartbeat (bill), but I didn't know what the definition of a heartbeat was. But that's all on me. And that's why a person needs to be real careful where you put your signature .”

But he said now that he’s introduced his amendment, he won’t back down.

“I've already dropped this, so I'm not compromising on it. And I think there are some other senators in here who share my concern or my interest, if you will, moving it to a twelve” week ban, he said.

Albrecht said a 12-week ban would still permit 85 percent of abortions currently being performed in Nebraska. And she said Riepe’s proposal is incompatible with her bill.

“He was going around in the last few days trying to get some support for a 12-week ban, which certainly is not something that I would support in any way, shape or form. This is a heartbeat bill. It's not a ban at six weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks. It is, if the baby has a beating heart and it's detected on an ultrasound, you can't have the abortion in Nebraska,” she said.

In an interview with Nebraska Public Media News, Albrecht acknowledged any drop off in support for her bill could prevent her from getting the 33 votes needed to overcome a filibuster against it.

Asked if she had the votes without Riepe’s support, she said “No I probably wouldn't.”

Asked what happens now, she said simply “We’ll see.”

Sen. Danielle Conrad, an abortion rights supporter, said Riepe’s amendment shows that abortion opponents are split. Conrad says she thinks most Nebraskans want to keep the current law, which allows abortions up to 20 weeks.

“I do not agree with the amendment that Senator Riepe has filed. But I think it shows that people who are seeking to ban abortion in Nebraska are perhaps more fractured than we would have thought when we woke up this morning,” Conrad said.

The abortion bill has not yet been scheduled for debate while Sen. Ray Aguilar, another co-sponsor, has been out recuperating from surgery.

Meanwhile, acrimony over proposed restrictions on surgery, medicine, team sports and locker room use involving transgender youth reached a new level Wednesday.

It started with Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who has been filibustering unrelated bills in an attempt to delay or prevent consideration of the transgender restrictions. Wednesday, while the Legislature was scheduled to debate gambling legislation, she once again jumped ahead to discussing her opposition to the transgender bills.

Cavanaugh compared those proposals to the stages of genocide as described by genocide scholar Gregory Stanton. According to his theory, the first stage is classification, which then progresses through discrimination and, eventually, to extermination.

Cavanaugh then reversed tactics and called for the proposed restrictions on transgender youth to be debated.

“I want us to have the debate on these bills. And I want us to take a vote on these bills. And I want a record for the history of this genocide for those who stood by it. For those who had an opportunity to change the course of history, the direction in which we are moving as a state and as a country. I want a record. I want the bloody hands recorded. This is a genocide,” she said.

That drew a harsh rebuke from Sen. Julie Slama.

“As soon as you get up on the mic and try to compare what this legislative body is doing, to the murder, the systemic murder of millions of people, whether they be Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Rwandans, victims of socialism, victims of communism -- I am beyond words right now, because that is a level of ignorance that is unacceptable in an elected body,” Slama said.

Slama then took the unusual step – unprecedented in recent decades – of asking for Cavanaugh to be censured for her remarks – a formal reprimand to be voted on by the full Legislature. But Speaker John Arch said that’s not going to happen, at least for now.

“We will not be taking up that motion at this time, we need to continue debate on this (gambling” bill,” Arch said.

Shortly thereafter, the Legislature adjourned for the day, having reached the halfway point of its scheduled 90-day session without having passed a single bill.