Lawmakers hear personal stories of desperation in testimony over clashing abortion bills

Lawmakers hear personal stories of desperation in testimony over clashing abortion bills
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Two women with two stories of desperation, played out in parking lots hundreds of miles apart, illustrated dueling abortion bills Wednesday before the Judiciary Committee.

Alex Alcala told lawmakers about sitting in her car in Lincoln, four years ago, with the test in her hand that confirmed her pregnancy.

“My entire body just sank into the seat,” she said. “I started panicking, crying, everything. My first thoughts were, ‘How do I end it all for myself?’ ”

Rebekah Hagan spoke of walking out of the California clinic where she had taken the first of two medications to end her pregnancy, with the second medication in a sack.

“By time I got to my car, I broke down and started to feel intense sadness and regret,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just do?’ ”

Alcala, then a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, ended up choosing abortion. She got a medication abortion at a Planned Parenthood of the Heartland clinic in Iowa, which used telemedicine to connect her with a doctor.

On Wednesday, she spoke in support of Legislative Bill 503, which would repeal the state law prohibiting medication abortions from being done using telemedicine in Nebraska.

Hagan searched online and found information about reversing a medication abortion. She got connected with a doctor, who prescribed the hormone progesterone, and went on to give birth to a boy.

She came to Nebraska to testify for LB 209, which would require that women undergoing medication abortions be told that the process may be reversed if steps are taken quickly.

State Sen. Megan Hunt, who introduced LB 503, said abortion is the exception to Nebraska laws allowing the use of telemedicine for all types of health care that do not involve a physical procedure.

She said the ban means women in rural areas and low-income women have a more difficult time getting abortions.

Hunt argued that there is no medical reason for the ban. She cited a seven-year study in Iowa that found no difference in outcomes for women who got medication abortions with a doctor in the room compared to those in which secure videoconferencing connected doctor and patient.

But opponents said that lifting the ban would expand abortions in the state. They also argued that the ban helps ensure patient safety by requiring that a doctor be available in case complications develop.

Marion Miner, speaking for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said the federal Food and Drug Administration has linked 22 deaths to mifepristone, one of the two drugs used in medication abortions.

Opponent and proponent groups switched sides when it came to LB 209, introduced by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston.

Albrecht described her bill as “pro-woman, pro-information, pro-life and pro-choice.”

She said recent evidence shows that it may be possible to reverse a medication abortion and continue a pregnancy if a woman gets high doses of progesterone within 72 hours of taking mifepristone, the first drug of a medication abortion, and she has not taken misoprostol, the second drug.

Teresa Kenney, a women’s health nurse practitioner, pointed to a 2018 study that concluded that up to 68 percent of cases can be successfully reversed using the protocol. She said that compares to about 25 percent of cases in which pregnancy continues after taking mifepristone but not the second drug of a medication abortion.

But opponents questioned the study, noting that the women included in the study were not all given the same protocol. They said pregnancy continues in as many as 50 percent of cases in which women take only the first drug of a medication abortion.

Sofia Jawed-Wessel, a public health professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the study numbers could be skewed because ultrasounds were used to exclude some women whose pregnancies had ended.

Opinions differ on ending lifetime ban on food stamps for drug felons

Food stamps. Drug felons would not face a new penalty after getting out of prison under a bill debated by the Legislature Wednesday.

Legislative Bill 169, introduced by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, would allow drug felons to get food assistance as long as they are complying with probation, parole or post-release supervision.

Under current state law, people convicted of drug distribution and people convicted three or more times of drug possession or use are barred for the rest of their lives from getting food assistance.

People convicted of possession or use one or two times can get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly called food stamps, if they are in a state-licensed or nationally accredited substance abuse treatment program.

Hunt said the bill aims to remove a major barrier for former inmates trying to reintegrate into society. She said people are more likely to wind up back in prison if they don’t have legal means of taking care of themselves and their families.

She also noted that the ban affects only drug felons, while people convicted of rape, robbery and murder can get food stamps after being released from prison.

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, who introduced a similar proposal two years ago, said the idea was brought to him by food banks. He said food banks reported seeing more drug felons who could not get help elsewhere.

But opponents, including Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration, argued that the current law maintains the right balance.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said drug dealers are the “most despicable criminals out there” and that two chances for drug users is enough. He argued that drug felons would sell their food stamp cards for money to maintain their addiction.

“They do not need food stamps. They do not need any pity at all,” he said.

Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said she had sympathy for the bill’s intent, based on what she has learned about corrections in the state. But she said she has concerns about lifting the ban on drug dealers.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without a vote on the bill. Hunt said she will be working with Geist on a possible compromise amendment.

Priority bills. Nebraska lawmakers named their priority bills for the rest of the session this week. Each senator gets one priority bill, committees get two and the Speaker of the Legislature gets to designate 25 priorities.Those bills will become the focus of the second half of the session. Below are some of the bills named.

Tax relief for farmers. LB 183, which would lower the tax load on farmers and ranchers when it comes to paying off school bonds, was prioritized by Albion Sen. Tom Briese.

Eminent domain for private companies. LB 155, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would not allow eminent domain for private wind farm use. Opponents say it would stifle wind energy development. It was prioritized by Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood after failing to advance from first-round debate earlier.

Income taxes. The Revenue Committee prioritized LB 288, which would change income tax rates. With amendments, the bill could become part of a property tax relief package.

Medical cannabis. Sen. Anna Wishart prioritized LB 110, which would legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Wishart and Sen. Adam Morfeld, both of Lincoln, have also organized a petition drive to legalize medical cannabis.

Legal hemp. The Nebraska Hemp Act, LB 657, would allow industrial hemp. It was prioritized by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth and introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha.

Police officers in schools. Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks prioritized LB 390, which would set guidelines for school resource officers. Critics say officers in schools help fuel a “school to prison pipeline.”

Vaping. Grand Island Sen. Dan Quick prioritized LB 149, which would raise the legal vaping age to 21, without changing the legal age of tobacco products. The General Affairs Committee is looking at changes to the bill, including raising the age to 19 for purchasing both vaping and tobacco products.

Human trafficking. A bill that would increase the statute of limitations for human trafficking was prioritized by the State-Tribal Relations Committee.

New license plates. Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood prioritized her bill, LB 138, which would create many new specialty license plates to honor veterans of specific wars and a “support our troops” plate.

Innovation program. LB 334, which would increase funding to a program that supporters say encourages startups in Nebraska, was prioritized by the Appropriations Committee.