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May 18, 2023Lincoln, Neb. |  By: AP

Nebraska Legislature votes to fold abortion ban into bill banning trans health care for minors


LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Conservatives in the Nebraska Legislature got just enough votes Tuesday to fold a proposed 12-week abortion ban into a bill that would ban gender-affirming health for minors.

As expected, the debate over the plan was raucous, with lawmakers opposed to the plan sparring angrily with Republican Lt. Gov. Joe Kelly, who presided over the Legislature, and accusing him of trashing legislative rules to help push through the plan. Multiple motions, calls for points of order and motions to overrule the chair stretched what was supposed to be a two-hour process to six hours.

The plan won the 33 votes it needed in Nebraska’s one-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature to end debate and set up other votes to advance it. It must now survive a final round, which could happen as soon as Thursday, to pass.

Throughout, hundreds of protesters filled the Capitol rotunda just outside the chamber doors, nearly drowning out debate at times with chants, shouts and foot stomping. Several protesters also stood in the balcony inside the chamber chanting, “One more vote to save our lives; you can’t defeat our human rights!” before the balconies were cleared. Lawmakers who voted for the merged bill fled the building immediately after through a back tunnel with state police escorts to avoid facing angry protesters — leading Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt to berate them as cowards.

“Shame on you who are devising escape routes out of here,” she said on the microphone. “If you can’t go out there and face the people you are hurting, then you are not worthy of this job.”

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who has led an epic effort to filibuster nearly every bill this session to protest the trans health bill, chastised conservative lawmakers for pushing measures that are unpopular with most health care providers, businesses and Nebraska voters.

“You are willing to drive this state into the ground. You look ridiculous,” Cavanaugh said. “Women will die, children are dying, and you are responsible.”

“You will have buckets and buckets of blood on your hands,” she added angrily, ratcheting up a phrase that saw Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr — the first openly transgender female lawmaker to serve in the Montana Legislature — banned from the House floor for the final days of the 2023 session by Republicans who dominate that body.

Conservative lawmakers took a risk proposing the plan to merge two issues. If they had gotten one less vote to end debate, it would have shelved both the abortion and trans health measures for the year.

Conservatives were stung last month when their bill to ban abortion after cardiac activity can be detected — which happens around six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant — failed to break a filibuster by a single vote.

Normally, the issue would be considered tabled for the remainder of the session. But last week, anti-abortion lawmakers sought to resurrect it by crafting a proposal to ban abortion at 12 weeks and attaching it to the trans bill.

Conservatives see the 12-week ban as a compromise. Opposing lawmakers say it’s an unprecedented attempt to take another bite at the apple after they were promised by the Legislature’s speaker that an abortion ban would not be revived this year.

Adding to the tumult is the underlying trans health bill, which has been the most contentious of the session. Introduced by freshman Sen. Kathleen Kauth, the bill would ban hormone treatments, puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgery for anyone 18 and younger.

An amended version would make exceptions for minors who were already on hormone treatments before the ban takes effect, but it also would give the state’s chief medical officer wide-ranging authority to set rules for use of hormone treatments for transgender minors. But the chief medical officer is a political appointee of a Republican governor and has already gone on record supporting a full ban on gender-affirming treatments for minors. Opponents say the amended bill would give him the power to block such treatments, even for those minors grandfathered in.

Both restrictions on abortion and transgender people have been consistent targets amid a national push by conservatives in state legislatures this year.

Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican elected in November, has said he will sign the amended bill into law if it passes. The bill would include an emergency clause, meaning it will go into effect as soon as the governor signs it.