Plot twist: Omaha state senator wavers, puts six-week abortion ban in jeopardy
OMAHA, Neb. -- A veteran Omaha Republican threw a wrench into the passage of a six-week abortion ban in Nebraska Wednesday, shocking the bill’s sponsor and shaking up the abortion debate in the Nebraska Legislature.
Sen. Merv Riepe, a retired hospital administrator, had previously co-sponsored the six-week abortion ban bill and voted it out of committee. He had been seen by state lawmakers – including Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, the bill’s Republican sponsor – as one of 33 “yes” votes needed to make it state law.
Until Wednesday morning, when Sen. Megan Hunt, who has led opposition to the bill, took to the legislative floor and announced Riepe proposed an amendment that would bar abortion in Nebraska at 12 weeks post-fertilization. That switch would allow many more Nebraskans to get a legal abortion than the six-week ban, which state data shows would stop the vast majority of abortions in Nebraska.
The original Legislative Bill 626 would require doctors to perform an ultrasound and ban most abortions after embryonic cardiac activity is detected, or roughly six weeks gestational age.
During an interview, Riepe said he wouldn’t sponsor the bill if given a do-over and that his concerns about the six-week ban, which supporters refer to as a “heartbeat bill,” had evolved since then.
He didn’t rule out voting for the six-week ban but said he was bothered by the idea that the bill could be interpreted as a “total ban.” He also said he doesn’t believe in “legislating morality.”
“At the end of the day, I need to look back and be able to say to myself, ‘Did you do the best?’” he told the Flatwater Free Press. “No group came to me, asking me to do this. This is of my own beliefs, my own commitments.”
An earlier vote tally by the Flatwater Free Press found Legislative Bill 626, the six-week ban, was just two solid “yes” votes short of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster. That number did not include two other registered Republican senators who were likely to vote for the bill and push it over the finish line. But that 33 number also included Riepe, whose vote is now in doubt.
Albrecht, the bill’s sponsor and a registered Republican, said it was “shocking to her,” but that she knew Riepe was having conversations with other senators about a 12-week ban in recent days.
“Things can change on a dime in this building,” she said.
She also acknowledged she needs Riepe’s support.
“I'm not frustrated, because, you know what? Everybody, we can all work things out,” she said. “People just have to have their time, and they have to say how they feel. I mean, that's why we have a debate. And then, by the end, you know, I can only hope he's with us.”
Without Riepe, the six-week ban’s success could hinge on two registered Democrats who are in a gray area when it comes to abortion.
One of those Democrats, Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, appeared to signal her intentions as a “no” vote when she voted against the bill in the Health and Human Services Committee. The other, Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, has suggested he may take issue with restricting abortions so early, before many women know they’re pregnant.
A similar concern motivated Riepe to introduce his amendment, which would strike the original bill and replace it with one that essentially tightens Nebraska’s current restriction of 20 weeks post-fertilization to 12 weeks. His goal: keeping it as understandable as possible, he said.
“I want to have that discussion,” Riepe said. “Because there are some people that think that the heartbeat, or what I call the ‘six-week ban,’ does not afford sufficient time for, particularly – and I'm not a woman, so I don't speak for women – but women, oftentimes, don't know exactly their menstrual cycle.”
Riepe’s concerned that a woman who’s outside the limit and wants an abortion may not be able to afford to travel to another state and would resort to “self-abortion.”
“I’m not trying to kill anything at this point in time,” Riepe said. “I just want to have the discussion that I wish we would have had up front but we didn’t.”
His amendment also adds an exception for fetal anomalies, which multiple doctors raised as a concern.
Hunt, who has led efforts to restrict access to abortion, said Riepe’s amendment is problematic to her. It doesn’t add exceptions for rape and incest, she said. It also includes criminal penalties for providers.
Among his other concerns with the original bill, Riepe pointed to the exception for sexual assault. He thought it could become a loophole through which people would make rape claims that put men at risk of criminal consequences.
“It’s a completely different bill if adopted,” Hunt said. In a text, she said she doesn’t think Riepe’s amendment is part of a compromise. Instead, she thinks it shows Riepe knows that his vote for LB 626 in committee was wrong.
During its public hearing in the Health and Human Services Committee, five doctors, including one who is retired and one from Texas, testified in favor of the bill while 22 Nebraska doctors and medical students testified against it.
Concerned doctors said, in part, that the bill would lead to delays and limited care that could lead to dire outcomes for their patients.
Albrecht said her goal is to end all “elective” abortions after embryonic cardiac activity is detected. Albrecht takes issue with the characterization of a “six-week ban” and prefers, as is common with proponents of such bills, to peg it to an embryo’s “heartbeat.”
Flatwater Free Press avoids using the terms “heartbeat bill” and “fetal heartbeat.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends doing so, because they aren’t clinically accurate when used to describe what’s heard on early ultrasounds.
“I'm trying to get rid of elective abortions in the state of Nebraska, to save babies with heartbeats,” she said. “That's what this bill is all about.”
Opponents have said it amounts to a de facto total ban.
In the five most recently published statistical reports from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, between about 14% and 31% of reported abortions have taken place at five weeks gestation or earlier. Doctors, anecdotally, say that restricting access to this extent would have an even more drastic impact than that data suggests.
Melissa Mathes, an OB-GYN in Omaha, often sees women who are in the earliest stages of pregnancy because of the unique clinic she’s part of – even then, she said, the vast majority of patients are at least five weeks along by the time she sees them.
Jennifer Hill, another Omaha OB-GYN, said in an interview that it would result in abortion remaining an option for just a fraction of a percentage of her patients.
And Omaha pediatrician Helen Grace, who serves a different population from the other two doctors who spoke to Flatwater, presented a unique concern: She said that children and teenagers don’t often know or share they’re pregnant. By the time someone discovers it, that young person is likely at least 10 or 12 weeks along, she said.
An analysis of Georgia abortion data, published by the medical journal JAMA Network Open, estimated that the six-week abortion ban that went into effect there last summer would end access to abortion for almost 90% of patients.
It also found that the restrictions would disproportionately harm Black patients, younger patients, and those of lower socioeconomic status.
Doctors generally date pregnancies from the first day of the last menstrual period. Twelve weeks post-fertilization – what’s in Riepe’s amendment – is equal to about 14 weeks gestational age, according to Hill.
Riepe, who represents parts of the Ralston and Millard areas of Omaha, was re-elected last year following a four-year hiatus after he lost the seat to former Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat. He said the six-week ban was a surprise for him and other newly elected senators at the outset of the first legislative session since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Riepe said the six-week ban proposal came “without consultation” with new senators like himself.
“I don't believe in surprises,” he said. “I don't like surprises. So I don't give them and I don't take them well.”
He still originally signed onto the bill. He then started doubting that decision.
“Well, you know, you get more information and you may look at things in a different light,” the 80-year-old Riepe said. “I've read it and reread it … When I was first asked, and I did sign on to it, I did express to Sen. Albrecht my concern about the six weeks, and I went ahead and I signed that. I wouldn't do that again. But I also reserve the right to change my mind.”
Four decades as a hospital administrator, he said, instilled the questions of what’s fair and reasonable as part of his “soul.”
His concerns have evolved over time, he said – he wants something that’s enforceable and not too vague, because he doesn’t want the restrictions to get tied up in court.
During an interview, Riepe claimed that other senators feel similarly to him – enough that “there would be some influence.”
But he knows he’s angering many senators with his amendment and potential change of heart. Anti-abortion senators might see it as a betrayal. And pro-abortion rights senators will likely oppose his amendment because it will more greatly restrict abortion than current law.
Riepe labeled himself with a single word Wednesday: “Pariah.”
“Nobody's gonna love me,” he said. “Nobody. You know what, I gotta get a dog, just so I have a friend.”
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