LINCOLN, Neb. – The Nebraska Legislature on Friday approved a 12-week abortion ban and restrictions on gender-affirming care for people younger than 19 in a move so contentious that lawmakers on both sides have said they may be unable to work together in the future.
Conservative lawmakers called in a visibly ill colleague so they would have enough votes to end a filibuster and pass a bill with both measures. Republican Gov. Jim Pillen, who pushed for the bill, 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 have pursued across the U.S. One lawmaker, Omaha state Sen. Megan Hunt, disclosed in March that her teenage son is transgender and said Friday that she now plans to leave the state.
North Carolina also passed a 12-week abortion ban this week, among a slew of restrictions enacted in states after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion. Fourteen states now have bans throughout pregnancy.
Nebraska, however, had not passed new restrictions while continuing to prohibit abortion starting around 20 weeks of pregnancy. The 12-week ban includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Opponents unsuccessfully sought an exception for fatal fetal anomalies and to explicitly protect doctors from criminal charges for performing a contested abortion.
The bill also would prevent transgender people under 19 from receiving any gender-confirming surgery. It would also restrict the use of hormone treatments and puberty blockers in minors, putting the state’s chief medical officer — a political appointee who is an ear, nose and throat doctor — in charge of setting the rules for those therapies. In Nebraska, people younger than 19 are considered minors.
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.
Nebraska's restrictions on gender-affirming care wouldn't take effect until Oct. 1. The abortion ban will take effect as soon as the governor signs it. Bill opponents promised to sue to stop both measures.
Friday’s debate was briefly halted when protesters in a chamber balcony stood and yelled obscenities at conservative lawmakers while throwing what appeared to be bloody tampons onto the floor. The Nebraska State Patrol cleared both balconies and said at least six people were arrested. As lawmakers began voting, hundreds of protesters packed into the Capitol rotunda shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” just outside the chamber.
Hundreds of businesses and medical professionals signed letters warning that both the abortion ban and the trans health restrictions would prompt corporations and doctors to leave the state. A letter submitted Friday and signed by more than 1,200 Nebraska medical professionals called the bill “a direct attack on the medical community of our state.”
Sen. Kathleen Kauth, who authored the trans health measure, has repeatedly referred to an increase of children who identify as transgender as “a social contagion." She said the measure is aimed at protecting children from doing something they might later regret.
“It does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we hate them,” she said. “Quite to the contrary: We love them.”
Kauth's measure was the genesis of an epic filibuster by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who along with a handful of progressive allies, including Hunt, have slowed the business of passing laws to a crawl by introducing amendment after amendment to every bill that made it to the Senate floor. That sent leadership scrambling to prioritize which bills to push through.
After lawmakers merged the abortion limits with the transgender health bill, state Sen. Julie Slama insinuated that conservatives were supporting the restrictions on gender-affirming care simply to retaliate against Cavanaugh. Slama noted that the restrictions did not initially have the 33 votes needed to survive.
On Friday, Cavanaugh vowed to continue her filibuster until the end of this year's session in early June and even through all of 2024.
“This place is morally bankrupt,” Cavanaugh said. "I’m looking forward to 2025 when I no longer have to serve with many of you.”
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 by the plan announced just last week.
Left-leaning lawmakers complained that conservatives essentially created a new bill that received no public hearing. They also say it violates state law that requires amendments be related to the underlying bill.