Neb. lawmakers expected to weigh abortion bills

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Abortion foes made strides in the last legislative session in further restricting the procedure in Nebraska, but the issue isn't expected to fall by the wayside in 2011.

Two anti-abortion groups that lobbied lawmakers during the last session are shopping new proposals for introduction after the Legislature convenes Wednesday, and at least one senator is working on an abortion bill of her own.

Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, said she expects abortion measures to get attention again in the coming session, although "I don't know how you top our unborn baby pain bill being used as model across the country."

That law, which went into effect in mid-October, outlaws abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain after that point. It is a departure from the standard of viability, established by the 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which allows states to limit abortions in cases where there's a viable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to be between 22 and 24 weeks.

The law targets Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers who runs a clinic in Bellevue. Facing the new restriction, Carhart announced in November that he would expand his practice across the river to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and would practice in Germantown, Md., and Indianapolis.

Schmit-Albin and officials with National Right to Life have spoken to abortion opponents nationwide about introducing similar laws in other states, and lawmakers in Indiana, Iowa and Kentucky have already started drafting bills. U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, is pushing for a federal law.

Still, Schmit-Albin said there's more that can be done in Nebraska.

Her group has spoken with state senators about a bill that would prevent doctors from prescribing an abortion-inducing drug to patients via video conference. Schmit-Albin said Planned Parenthood of the Heartland — which covers Nebraska, Iowa and some surrounding areas — has been offering telemedicine abortions in Iowa since 2008. Under that program, women in the early stages of pregnancy seeking an abortion-inducing drug can go to one of 15 or so clinics, where they meet with a nurse, then talk to a doctor by a secure Internet connection. The doctor has the woman's medical records and can remotely open a container and provide the drug.

Schmit-Albin said she expects that program to be expanded to Nebraska in the near future.

"If they can flood their tentacles across the state and reach into rural areas through the Web cam . then they can span a large area with abortion," she said. "We don't want to see what's happening in Iowa happen in Nebraska."

Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said before expanding in Nebraska, the organization would need facilities in rural areas where patients could meet with abortion doctors via video conference. Planned Parenthood now has facilities in Omaha and Lincoln.

June said cautioned against limiting telemedicine.

"Many major health organizations utilize telehealth, including mental health professionals, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and university hospitals and clinics. . If providing medication abortion via telemedicine is banned on the premise of safety, other needed telehealth services may be banned as well," she said.

State lawmakers also likely will debate abortion funding through the federal health care overhaul. State Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton, said she's preparing legislation that would limit insurance coverage for the procedure.

Under the reform law passed in March, private plans in new insurance markets opening for business in 2014 could cover abortion, but payment must come from enrollees themselves, not from federal tax credits that will be offered to make premiums more affordable. An obscure part of the law allows states to restrict abortion coverage by private plans operating in new insurance markets.

So far, at least five states — Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee — have enacted laws restricting abortion coverage by those private plans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota and Oklahoma already had bans on insurance coverage for abortion.

Dubas said the legislation she's working on for Nebraska would prohibit the use of state and federal money to pay for abortion, except in cases where "the procedure is necessary for the health and safety of the mother."

"Sanctity-of-life issues garner strong support from my constituency, along with citizens throughout our state," Dubas said. "I believe the state has a role in making sure our tax dollars are not expended to support procedures that go against those majority views."

Schmit-Albin said she wasn't familiar with Dubas' legislation and was working with another senator on a similar measure.

Greg Schleppenbach of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said he hoped to work with a senator on a revised version of a health screening law that was thrown out by the courts in July, but he didn't have anyone signed on yet. Sen. Cap Dierks, of Ewing, who introduced the measure in 2010, didn't win re-election.

"It's still not definite," Schleppenbach said.

The screening law approved last year required women wanting abortions to be screened by doctors or other health professionals to determine whether they had risk factors indicating they could have mental or physical problems after an abortion. If screening wasn't performed or was performed inadequately, a woman with mental or physical problems resulting from an abortion could file a civil lawsuit. Doctors would not face criminal charges or lose their medical licenses.

The law was to take effect July 15, but it was challenged by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, and U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp temporarily blocked it from taking effect. In that ruling, the judge said evidence presented so far showed the screening law would make it harder for women to get an abortion in Nebraska by requiring screenings that could be impossible to perform under a literal reading of the law. She also said the law would put abortion providers at risk of crippling lawsuits.

Attorney General Jon Bruning agreed to a permanent federal injunction against enforcement of the law, saying it was likely to be found unconstitutional.