As the Nebraska Legislature heads toward a debate over whether the state should drastically limit abortion access, one lawmaker is looking to give voters a say on the matter.
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee held a public hearing Thursday on two amendments that would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution. Both were introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has led opposition to recent attempts to restrict abortion access in the state.
Legislative Resolution 18CA seeks to amend Nebraska’s Bill of Rights, adding the words “reproductive freedom” to the list of each individual’s inalienable rights. LR19CA would add a new section to the state constitution, establishing a person’s right to make decisions related to their pregnancy, including contraception and abortion, and prohibiting the state from penalizing individuals based on those decisions.
If passed by lawmakers — an outcome that even Hunt acknowledged is improbable — each proposal would then go on the ballot in 2024 for voter approval. Legislative action is one of two ways to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Nebraska, with the other being a petition drive.
“This is an issue that the Supreme Court has said goes to the states,” Hunt said. “And I think in Nebraska, the ultimate authority has to be the people.”
Thursday’s hearing drew dozens to testify both for and against each resolution. In addition, hundreds submitted written comments online, with more than 100 of them supporting both proposals, and more than 400 opposing each one.
Aside from Hunt’s proposals, lawmakers are embroiled in a debate about LB626, which would ban most abortions in the state at about six weeks of pregnancy, once embryonic cardiac activity can be detected.
While Hunt’s amendments are unlikely to make it out of committee, the fate of LB626 was thrown into question this week. A presumed supporter of the bill, Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, introduced an amendment to LB626 on Wednesday that would ban abortions at 12 weeks instead of six. Riepe told reporters that he had “signer’s remorse” about co-sponsoring the legislation.
Losing Riepe’s support would threaten the ability of LB626 to overcome a filibuster, but he clarified Thursday that he does plan to support the bill in a cloture vote.
Hunt said she opposes LB626 and Riepe’s amendment.
Abortion rights have been a weighty topic in Nebraska the past two legislative sessions. The debate took on a new sense of urgency after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade in June.
Officials on both sides of debate have claimed the majority of Nebraskans agree with them, presenting competing data sets that paint different pictures on where public opinion stands.
Hunt argued that if LB626’s supporters are confident that the majority of voters agree with them, they shouldn’t be opposed to putting the issue on the ballot.
“If that’s true, let’s let them tell us,” Hunt said.
Several supporters of the proposed constitutional amendments echoed that sentiment. Lisa Lewis, with the Jewish Federation of Omaha, argued that increasing restrictions on abortion would also be restricting Jewish traditions, which she said values a woman’s life over all else.
Meanwhile, opponents voiced many of the same arguments made in support of LB626: that everyone has an inherent right to life, and abortions end some of those lives. Several people argued that language in the proposals contradicts the inalienable right to life already established in the state’s Bill of Rights.
“We cannot disregard that abortion is a death sentence,” said opponent Steve Davies.
Opponents also criticized the resolutions for not placing any limitations on abortions, leading several testifiers to conclude that the proposals would effectively allow abortions up to full term. Hunt said she did not want to regulate that aspect of the law, as she believes the courts should decide that limitation.
Hunt conceded she does not believe her resolutions will advance out of committee — the same committee that advanced LB626 several weeks ago. However, she expressed confidence that abortion rights will still make it on the Nebraska ballot through other means, such as a ballot initiative.