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Emboldened by success in other red states, effort launched to protect abortion rights in Nebraska

The proposed amendment would declare a fundamental right to abortion until fetal viability, or when needed to protect the life or health of the pregnant patient

Pat Neal, left, and Ann Fintell, both of Lincoln, celebrate in the Nebraska Capitol
Pat Neal, left, and Ann Fintell, both of Lincoln, celebrate in the Nebraska Capitol rotunda after the failure of a bill that would have banned abortion around the sixth week of pregnancy, Thursday, April 27, 2023 in Lincoln, Neb.Margery Beck (AP)

An effort to enshrine abortion rights in the Nebraska Constitution is being launched, following on the heels of successful efforts in other reds states where Republicans had enacted or sought abortion restrictions. Protect Our Rights, the coalition behind the effort, submitted proposed petition language to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office late last month.

That language was kept under wraps until Wednesday, when the state’s top elections office released it. Organizers plan to hold a news conference Thursday to kick off the effort, in which they will need to collect around 125,000 valid signatures by next summer to get the measure on the ballot in 2024.

“We’re confident in this effort, and we’re energized,” said Ashlei Spivey, founder and executive director of I Be Black Girl, an Omaha-based reproductive rights group that makes up part of the coalition. Other members include Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the Women’s Fund.

The proposed amendment would declare a fundamental right to abortion until fetal viability, or when needed to protect the life or health of the pregnant patient. Under the petition language, the patient’s health care practitioner would determine fetal viability.

The group relied, in part, on polling it says shows a majority of Nebraskans favoring abortion access, Spivey said. That’s proving consistent in other states where voters have backed abortion rights — including in Ohio, where voters last week resoundingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to protect abortion access. “Ohio was definitely a proof point for us,” Spivey said. “Ohio shows that voters are going to protect their rights.” Now, advocates in at least a dozen states are looking to take abortion questions to voters in 2024.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that had protected abortion rights nationally, voters in all seven states that held a statewide vote have backed access. That includes neighboring conservative Kansas, where voters resoundingly rejected last year a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.

Paige Brown, a spokesperson for the Nebraska Catholic Conference that has lobbied hard for abortion restrictions, telegraphed that abortion opponents are aware of the public pushback.

“Nebraska’s major pro-life groups are not pursuing our own ballot initiative,” Brown said in a written statement. Instead, she said, they will focus on defending Nebraska’s current 12-week abortion ban passed by the Republican-led Legislature earlier this year that includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. “The vast majority of Nebraskans agree this is reasonable public policy,” Brown said.

A petition seeking a 2024 referendum to outright ban abortion in Nebraska that was approved earlier this year has been suspended after the lone organizer was unable to raise enough volunteers to circulate it.

Despite indications that further restrictions are unpopular, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen and other Republican leaders have vowed to do just that, even as others have warned it could cost them elections. Republican state Sen. Merve Riepe, who tanked a 6-week ban bill by refusing to end a filibuster on it, took to the legislative floor in April to urge his conservative colleagues to heed signs that abortion will galvanize women to vote them out of office.

“We must embrace the future of reproductive rights,” he said at the time. Ashley All, who helped lead the effort in Kansas to protect abortion rights, echoed that warning, noting Kansas voters rejected that state’s anti-abortion effort by nearly 20 percentage points.

“For 50 years, all we’ve heard is a very specific stereotype of who gets an abortion and why,” All said. “But when you start to disrupt that stereotype and show how abortion is health care, people’s perceptions and opinions begin to shift.”

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