June 3, 2023

The Nebraska Legislature on Friday approved a 12-week abortion ban and restrictions on gender-affirming care for children in a move so contentious that lawmakers on both sides have said they may be unable to work together in the future.

Conservative lawmakers wrangled just enough votes to end a filibuster and pass a bill with both measures. Republican Gov. Jim Pillen, who pushed for the bill and met with various lawmakers to shore up support, has promised to sign it into law.

The mood in the Nebraska Capitol has been volatile since lawmakers on Tuesday advanced by a single vote the hybrid measure that ties together restrictions that Republicans across the U.S. have been pushing. Nebraska’s lawmakers have traded insults and promises of retribution, while protesters have loudly voiced their displeasure. Nebraska’s ban comes the same week North Carolina affirmed a 12-week ban on abortion, overriding that governor’s veto. 

Friday’s debate was briefly stopped when protesters in a chamber balcony stood and yelled obscenities at conservative lawmakers while throwing what appeared to be bloody tampons onto the floor. Security arrested at least one person and cleared the balconies. As lawmakers began voting, chants of, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” could be heard coming from outside the chamber.

Nebraska had not passed a new abortion ban since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion. The state currently bans abortion starting around 20 weeks of pregnancy. The 12-week ban includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

The bill also would prevent transgender people 18 or younger from receiving any gender-confirming surgery. The state’s chief medical officer — a political appointee who is currently an ear, nose and throat doctor — would set rules for puberty blockers and hormone therapies. There would be some exceptions for minors who were already receiving treatment before the ban was enacted.

At least 17 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming medical care for minors, and proposals are pending before the governors of Texas and Missouri. Medical groups and advocates say such restrictions are further marginalizing transgender youth and threatening their health.

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh led an effort to filibuster nearly every bill this session — even ones she supported — to protest the proposed restrictions on gender-affirming care. She railed against conservatives who voted for the hybrid bill and warned that people, medical professionals and businesses will leave the state over it.

Cavanaugh declared in early March that she would “burn the session to the ground over this bill,” and she and a handful of progressive allies followed through. They introduced hundreds of amendments and motions to slow every bill at each stage of debate, impeding the work of the Legislature and sending leadership scrambling to prioritize which bills to push through.

After lawmakers merged the abortion limits with the transgender health bill, Cavanaugh clashed with Sen. Julie Slama, who insinuated that conservatives were supporting the restrictions on gender-affirming care to retaliate against Cavanaugh. Slama noted that the restrictions did not initially have the 33 votes needed to survive.

“But then Machaela Cavanaugh got up and ran her mouth because she was just overjoyed that the national media was here to give her some more attention,” Slama said. “So that gave us 33 votes.”

Cavanaugh responded that it would “cost” conservatives with just days left in the session for lawmakers to pass bills.

“I am going to take all of the time. Every single, solitary minute of it to make sure the speaker has to decide what actually gets scheduled in these last handful of days,” she said.

Conservatives in the one-house, officially nonpartisan Legislature announced early this month that they would amend the trans health bill to squeeze in the abortion restrictions. That unconventional move came after conservatives failed to advance a bill that would have banned abortion once cardiac activity can be detected — generally around six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.

Legislative rules state that a bill failing to defeat a filibuster must be tabled for the year. So opponents were surprised when conservatives announced a plan for a 12-week ban. Progressive lawmakers say it was an underhanded way to ramrod through a ban after the issue already failed. Conservatives say the ban is as a compromise.

Because an emergency clause is attached to the bill, it will take once the governor signs it.

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