We are now eight days and 400 bills into the 2023 Nebraska legislative session. Two notable proposals have been brought forward by pro-life champion Senator Joni Albrecht: the Nebraska Heartbeat Act and the Nebraska Pregnancy Help Act. This column will explore the Heartbeat Act specifically and how it fits into our broader vision to build a culture of life in Nebraska.
To do that, we must take a step back to recall our situation after the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer. Abortion is still legal in our state for any reason up to 20 weeks after conception.
Readers may recall that pro-life state senators attempted to pass the Human Life Protection Act (LB933) last year, which would have protected all preborn babies in Nebraska from the moment of conception if and when Roe were ever overturned. In Nebraska, when a minority in the Legislature is determined to block a bill, 33 of 49 state senators must vote “yes” to break a filibuster and advance it. We got 31 votes—two short of passage.
A month later, Roe was indeed overturned—praise God!—returning the authority to protect preborn babies to the states and the people. In response, then-Governor Pete Ricketts signaled his intention to call for a special session to pass pro-life legislation immediately. Only 30 senators signed a letter stating they would be willing to do so—three short of the needed 33.
In the meantime, other states had laws take effect immediately that gave strong protection to preborn babies from abortion. Among these were Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming, all states that border Nebraska. That leaves us in a very bad present position. Nebraska is in danger of becoming an abortion “destination” state if we do not pass a law comparable to what has been enacted in the states around us.
The good news is that after elections in November, the incoming class of new senators seems to have stronger pro-life convictions than the outgoing class. The bad news is that even with those gains, it is apparent Nebraska does not have 33 votes to pass something like the Human Life Protection Act this year.
If that is surprising—we had 31 votes for total protection last year, our situation has improved, and we still don’t have 33 for full protection—recall that last year’s vote happened before Roe was overturned. We’re living in a new era, under a different paradigm. The laws we pass will go into effect now—not if and when some event occurs in the future. Senators have had to reexamine just how strong their pro-life convictions really are. Most, thank God, are as unshakeable as ever. Others are more hesitant. Some are unwilling to vote for legislation that does not include exceptions where the mother has been the victim of rape or incest. It has become apparent that while we may have 33 votes for some form of pro-life legislation, nothing will pass in this Legislature without those exceptions.
Senator Albrecht—and we at the Nebraska Catholic Conference—do not support exceptions. The dignity of those children is equal to that of any other child and should be recognized and protected equally under the law. But it is clear that the malformation of our cultural conscience over nearly 50 years of “abortion on demand” under Roe cannot be undone in one year or one legislative session.
Pope St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, tells us that when it is not possible to completely overturn a pro-abortion law, we may “support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done … and at lessening its negative consequences.” That is why Senator Albrecht has decided to bring the Nebraska Heartbeat Act, which will protect babies with a beating heart from the lethal violence of abortion, with the lamentable inclusion of exceptions for rape and incest. The bill Senator Albrecht has proposed would stop 2,000 abortions per year in Nebraska—85% of the abortions in our state—and effectively eliminate abortion as a business model here.
Our vision is to build a true culture of life in Nebraska—one where every person is celebrated, valued, and protected, no matter the circumstances of his or her conception. We will work diligently in the coming years to realize that vision, and it is important to witness consistently to the dignity of every person, including every preborn child, even as we pursue imperfect legislation meant to limit evil to the greatest extent possible in a given time.
Passing the Nebraska Heartbeat Act would be a great accomplishment, and we will work vigorously for its passage, but it is only a beginning in a new era of possibilities. Please pray for its enactment and support those senators who will fight for its passage into law.