LINCOLN, Neb. – Two landmark measures putting new restrictions on abortion became law in Nebraska on Tuesday, including one that critics say breaks with court precedent by changing the legal rationale for a ban on later-term abortions.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman signed both bills, one barring abortions at and after 20 weeks of pregnancy and the other requiring women to be screened before having abortions for mental health and other problems. Both sides of the abortion debate say the laws are firsts of their kind in the U.S.
A national abortion rights group already appeared to be girding for a legal challenge, calling the ban after 20 weeks “flatly unconstitutional” because it is based on the assertion that fetuses feel pain, not on the ability of a fetus to survive outside the womb.
“It absolutely cannot survive a challenge without a change to three decades of court rulings,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Courts have been chipping away at abortion rights … this would be like taking a huge hacksaw to the rights.”
The law focusing on late-term abortions is designed to shut down one of the few doctors in the nation who performs them in Nebraska.
Set to take effect in October, it is based on the claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. The current standard in abortion restrictions is viability, or when a fetus is able to survive outside the womb – generally at 22 to 24 weeks.
The law could lead to changes in state laws across the country if upheld by the courts, said Mary Spaulding Balch, legislative director for National Right to Life.
“It would broaden the interests of states in protecting the unborn child,” she said. “It says the state has an interest in the unborn child before viability.”
Heineman also signed the other bill, approved by lawmakers on Monday, that requires the screening for mental health problems and other risk factors indicating if women might have problems after having abortions.