Reproductive rights advocates in Nebraska have taken their first steps towards placing a constitutional amendment on next year's ballot to undo the state's new 12-week abortion ban, though the Nebraska Examiner's Paul Hammel notes that organizers have yet to decide on the text of their measure or how far it might go. The drive comes months after Nebraska's unicameral legislature, an officially nonpartisan body that has been dominated by Republicans for decades, approved increased restrictions in the face of fierce opposition.
In 2010, the 49-member chamber had passed a bill outlawing most abortions after 20 weeks, the first of its kind in the nation. Conservatives tried to go much further earlier this year when they introduced legislation that would have banned the procedure after only about six weeks. Democrats, though, organized a filibuster to prevent the bill from receiving the 33 votes it needed to advance.
During the 2022 elections, Republicans fell one seat short of obtaining the two-thirds majority they would need to overcome filibusters, but Democratic Sen. Mike McDonnell joined their efforts to move the bill forward. (Another Democrat, Justin Wayne, abstained.) However, Republican Sen. Merv Riepe made the crucial decision to abstain after his party refused to take up his plan to restrict access to 12 weeks. Riepe cited his own tough race months earlier to explain his reluctance to accept a six-week ban, warning his colleagues, "We must embrace the future of reproductive rights."
Riepe's move derailed the six-week ban, but conservatives weren't done yet. They instead took a previously unrelated plan to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors, legislation, which had been stalled thanks to the efforts of Democratic Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, and grafted on a 12-week abortion ban. Republican Sen. Julie Slama suggested that leadership did so in part to retaliate against Cavanaugh, who had slowed down every bill that had reached the floor; Slama, along with Riepe, backed the joint bill when it passed in May.
Cavanaugh was furious. "This place is morally bankrupt," she said as she vowed to keep delaying bills. "I’m looking forward to 2025 when I no longer have to serve with many of you." Sen. Megan Hunt, a progressive Democrat-turned-independent who had revealed that her son is trans months before, in turn responded by declaring she'd leave the state. Andi Curry Grubb, who serves as state director for the regional Planned Parenthood, further highlighted that the bill didn't include any exceptions for fetal anomalies, which often aren't diagnosed until after the 12th week of pregnancy.
Curry Grubb is now part of the newly formed campaign to amend Nebraska's constitution called Protect Our Rights, though she tells the Examiner that abortion rights advocates haven't given up hope of striking down the new bill in court. She added that her coalition is still formulating language for the proposed measure but noted the urgency of winning at the ballot box before GOP Gov. Jim Pillen and his allies can muster up support to pass a still-more restrictive ban as Republicans had originally wanted.
The secretary of state will need to approve the wording once it's been submitted before Protect Our Rights can start to collect signatures to place its amendment before voters. The campaign needs about 123,000 valid signatures, a figure that represents 10% of Nebraska's registered voters, and it also must collect petitions from 5% of voters in 38 of the state's 93 counties. According to Ballotpedia, their deadline is July 5.
The Cornhusker State is a longtime GOP stronghold that hasn't backed a Democratic candidate for president since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide, but there's reason to think an abortion rights amendment could still win enough support to pass next year: Polling from Civiqs finds that 49% of voters believe the procedure should be legal all or most of the time, while 46% say the opposite. Two polls taken last year also showed majorities opposed to further abortion restrictions.
The new campaign in Nebraska comes ahead of a Nov. 7 vote in Ohio on an amendment that would enshrine abortion rights into the state's constitution. Pro-choice advocates are also working to collect signatures in Arizona, Florida, and South Dakota to amend their own constitutions next year. Their counterparts in Missouri are looking to do the same in 2024, but first they're suing Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over the misleading ballot summary text he crafted for their amendment.