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Nebraska Republican gives top priority to bill allowing abortions in cases of fatal fetal anomalies

LINCOLN, Neb. — A Nebraska lawmaker who tanked an effort last year by his fellow Republicans to pass a near-total abortion ban has given top priority this year to a bill that would allow abortions beyond the state’s 12-week ban in cases of fatal fetal anomalies.

The bill by state Sen. Merv Riepe would amend Nebraska’s 12-week abortion ban, passed last year, to allow abortions in cases when a fetus is unable to survive outside the womb. That diagnosis must come from two doctors who determine that, regardless of any life-saving treatment, a fetus is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or shortly thereafter. The diagnosis and abortion must come before 20 weeks of pregnancy — a timeline consistent with Nebraska’s previous 20-week ban on abortions.

The bill also removes criminal penalties for doctors who perform an abortion outside the exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

The bill comes as the nation finds itself embroiled in a tug-of-war over abortion access in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed the right to abortion nationwide for nearly five decades.

Since then, about two dozen states have enacted some form of abortion restrictions, and that has led to some high-profile cases that have stirred national pushback. Kate Cox, a Texas mother of two, sued last year to obtain an abortion in her state after learning the baby she was carrying had a fatal genetic condition and that carrying to term could leave her infertile. Her request was denied by the Texas Supreme Court, and she left the state to seek an abortion elsewhere.

The uproar over that and other cases has been met by a slew of voter initiatives over abortion access, all of which have so far favored the side supported by abortion rights supporters. In Nebraska, advocates are trying to collect about 125,000 signatures needed by July 5 to put a constitutional amendment before voters to protect abortion rights until fetal viability.

Riepe delegated his bill as his priority for the session on Wednesday — a day before the deadline to do so. In Nebraska’s unique one-chamber, officially nonpartisan Legislature, prioritizing a bill gives it elevated status, making it more likely to be advanced from committee and debated by all 49 state lawmakers.

Riepe, an 81-year-old former hospital administrator, incurred the ire of his fellow Republicans last year when he refused to provide them the final vote needed to pass a bill that would have banned abortion once cardiac activity could be detected, or about six weeks into pregnancy — before most women even know they’re pregnant.

Riepe abstained from voting on that bill after his amendment to extend the ban to 12 weeks and add an exception for fatal fetal anomalies was rejected. Following the vote, Riepe took to the mic to warn his Republican colleagues that strict abortion bans would galvanize women to vote them out of office.

He pointed to his own slim election victory in 2022, after the fall of Roe v. Wade, over a Democrat who made abortion rights central to her campaign.

“This made the message clear to me how critical abortion will be in 2024,” Riepe said last year. “We must embrace the future of reproductive rights.”

A 12-week ban was eventually folded into a bill to restrict gender-affirming care for minors and enacted last year.

On the national stage, Democrats see the issue of abortion rights as a major driver in a presidential election year. Abortion access advocates have pushed hard for ballot measure initiatives aiming to protect abortion rights

According to an AP-NORC poll last summer, about two-thirds of Americans say abortion should generally be legal, but only about a quarter say it should always be legal and only about 1 in 10 say it should always be illegal.

Adelle Burk with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska said Riepe’s bill falls well short of restoring full rights to abortion access, but that it “acknowledges some of the harm done by the bill passed last year and tries to control some of that damage.”

More telling, she said, is that a bill to ease abortion restrictions is being championed by a Republican with a long history of supporting abortion bans. It indicates that at least some politicians recognize how unpopular the bans are, she said.

“I think voters are deeply concerned about their rights and the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Burk said. “They’re motivated to vote in even larger numbers this year and will be looking to protect and restore their rights.”

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