The Nebraska legislature moved one step closer Friday to passing a bill that would ban the abortion of fetuses 20 weeks or older based on the belief that the unborn baby can feel pain.
State senators approved the bill, LB1103, on the second of three readings and are scheduled to have the final reading next week.
If passed, the bill will likely be signed into law by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and make Nebraska the first state with a law that directly challenges Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that allows women to have an abortion until about 22 weeks.
The abortion law would also be the most restrictive in the United States.
"I feel the state has a legitimate and substantial interest in protecting the life of an unborn child at 20 weeks," said Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who introduced the bill.
As in other states, the current law on abortion restrictions in Nebraska is based on whether the fetus can survive outside the womb. Generally, a fetus is considered viable around 22 to 24 weeks.
Proponents of LB1103 argue the fetus develops brain circuitry responsible for some sensory information around 21 weeks after conception and can feel pain.
Those opposed to the bill, however, argue that just because the fetus has the "wiring" does not mean the circuits are functional. They also contend that if the unborn baby at this stage recoils during an abortion it is not out of a response to pain but because of a spinal cord reflex.
Besides the 20-weeks restriction, the bill is also controversial because it does not allow a woman to cite mental health as a reason for having an abortion. Lawmakers say the bill, if passed, would surely invite legal battles over the constitutionality of excluding the mental health exception.
Notably, LB1103 could be a serious threat to Nebraska's infamous abortionist, LeRoy Carhart, who is one of the few in the country who perform late-term abortions. Carhart reportedly aborts fetuses up to 22 weeks electively, and even older if there are medical reasons. The exclusion of the mental health exception is considered by many as a direct response to Cahart as it would prevent him from using such an excuse to perform late-term abortions.
If passed, the fetal pain bill could force Carhart to relocate his business to another state or even close it altogether.