Abortion exceptions considered; fentanyl penalties advanced

22 de Febrero de 2024 a las 17:00 ·

Senator Merv Riepe testifies Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Merv Riepe testifies Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal to allow exceptions to Nebraska’s limits on abortion in cases of fatal fetal anomalies produced strong reactions at a public hearing Thursday. And, senators advanced a bill enhancing penalties for people who supply fentanyl-laced drugs that kill or seriously injure another person.

Last year, Nebraska passed a law prohibiting abortions later than the 12th week of pregnancy. Thursday’s hearing was about Sen. Merv Riepe’s proposal to extend that deadline to 20 weeks after fertilization, or about 22 weeks the way pregnancy is often calculated, from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period, in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Two doctors would have to certify that the fetus had a medical condition incompatible with life outside the womb.

Riepe explained his reasoning.

“It is my belief that mothers should have the option up to 20 weeks as to how she and her doctors should proceed with the pregnancy. These women have done everything right. They are wanting to be mothers. They have sought prenatal care and screening. But the genetic lottery has swatted them down and they have lost,” he said.

Tiffany Palmer supported the bill. Palmer said when she was growing up, abortion was a dirty word, and before her fetus was diagnosed with a fatal anomaly, she had a stereotype about who would get an abortion.

“I assumed most of these women were unwed and single. What no one talks about, and what most people have not ever heard of, is the phrase ‘termination for medical reasons.’ By definition, the result is the same as abortion. However, when a woman or a couple are faced with a diagnosis that (sic) trisomy 18 and the child that they love don't have a chance to live outside of the womb, medical termination should be an option,” she said.

Dr. Robert Bonebrake, an internal fetal medicine specialist in Omaha, opposed the bill. Bonebrake said fetal diagnoses can be wrong.

“I have been wrong. I've seen others be wrong. I still receive Christmas cards year after year from families and their growing child that I diagnosed would not be able to live outside the uterus. The premise (is) that abortion is better by not making the woman have to suffer by continuing the pregnancy, simply by moving up the timeline of the death of the child will make it easier. This is false,” Bonebrake said.

Callie Higgins also opposed the bill. Higgins said although her child Archer was diagnosed with a fetal anomaly, she and her family were grateful for the 26 hours they had between his birth and death.

“It is difficult to fully comprehend and express the receiving of a fatal diagnosis for an unborn child until you've actually walked through it. The emotional turmoil, the uncertainty of the future and fear and sadness can feel overwhelming. In this moment, it can be difficult to think clearly and make decisions that are fully thought out. For a medical professional to recommend terminating the pregnancy may seem like the best option for an expecting mother looking for guidance in the midst of the turmoil. But aborting the baby will not change the heartbreak,” she said.

Representatives of anti-abortion organizations also opposed the bill. Meanwhile, representatives of abortion-rights organizations testified neutral.

Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood said she appreciated that Riepe was trying to undo some of the harm caused by last year’s legislation, but it was not enough.

“It remains abundantly clear that these decisions should be left to the experts -- individual Nebraskans and their medical providers -- not politicians,” she said. Instead of negotiating year after year for limited and hard-to-use exceptions, we need to reject these harmful bans entirely. Nebraskans deserve to decide and that's why we are working to ensure that abortion rights for every Nebraskan are protected once and for all through the ballot this November.”

She was referring to an initiative that would ask voters if they want to permit abortions up to the point when the fetus can survive outside the womb, at approximately 24 weeks of pregnancy.

In floor action Thursday, senators advanced a bill aimed at enhancing penalties for people who supply fentanyl-laced drugs that seriously injure or kill someone. Sen. Carolyn Bosn, sponsor of the bill, said the Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that overdoses killed 108,000 Americans in the last 12 months. She said that’s more than enough people to fill Memorial Stadium on a football Saturday.

“That is four times as many who died from homicides in America each year, and more than twice as many as are killed in motor vehicle accidents. Doing nothing is not an option. This is a crisis. It is a public health crisis. It is a public safety crisis. This has to have a reaction. It has to be responded to,” she said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney objected, saying while fentanyl is a problem in his north Omaha community, the bill would increase the problem of prison overcrowding.

“There's many sad stories. I know people that have been affected by fentanyl. I'm not up here saying that they should have died because they took a drug. I know people that died. I went to school with people that died. But I'm also aware that enhancements of crimes have disproportionately affected my community,” McKinney said.

Sen. Rick Holdcroft, who’s named the bill his priority, acknowledged Nebraska’s prisons are overcrowded, but said this state actually imprisons a smaller percentage of people than most neighboring states.

“So why isn't their overcrowding percentage higher than Nebraska’s? Because they have more prisons. And so you have two solutions to our overcrowding situation in Nebraska. One, build more prisons. That's not ideal, I agree. And also to try to reduce recidivism, try to help with the reentry,” he said.

Sen. Danielle Conrad said people who supply fentanyl-laced drugs resulting in death can already be charged with manslaughter and sentenced from 0-50 years, or with intent to deliver a controlled substance and sentenced to 1-20 years.

“No one has told me, and I haven't seen any studies, about how increasing the penalties beyond 0-20 (or) beyond 1-50 brings anybody back or is an effective deterrent,” she said.

Senators voted 35-2 to give the bill first-round approval.

In other action, the Appropriations Committee voted to advance Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s proposal to set aside $25 million for scholarships to private and religious schools.

Lawmakers approved a similar proposal last year using a tax-credit mechanism, but that measure is currently subject to a referendum to repeal it in November.