Nebraska's governor signed two landmark bills Tuesday that put unprecedented restrictions on abortions performed in the state.
The laws are the first of their kind in the United States and the most restrictive in terms of defining the circumstances when an abortion is legal.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman signed both bills on Tuesday – the same day the state legislature approved LB 1103, the bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the belief that the fetus can feel pain. The other piece of legislation, LB 594, was approved Monday by a 44-5 vote and requires women who seek an abortion in Nebraska to first be screened for mental health and other problems that might develop after the procedure.
"LB 594 and LB 1103 represent important legislation for Nebraska and I want to thank both senators for their thoughtful approach to this issue," Heineman said during the bills' signing.
"Women are suffering from avoidable physical and psychological complications that may have been prevented or minimized had they received adequate preabortion screening and counseling," added Sen. Cap Dierks, who introduced LB 594. "Women deserve better. LB 594 will ensure that women receive the appropriate standard of care."
While pro-life groups hailed the bills as life-saving, abortion rights groups have challenged the constitutionality of the new laws, particularly over the exclusion of a mental health exception.
They also contest the reasoning behind the 20-weeks restriction, claiming that the reaction of fetuses during an abortion procedure is not out of pain but are the result of a spinal cord reflex. The current standard in abortion restrictions is based on whether the fetus can survive outside the womb. A fetus is generally considered viable around 22 to 24 weeks.
"There is certainly no solid scientific evidence establishing that a fetus can perceive pain at these earlier stages, so any court decisions to uphold such broader laws could only do so by disregarding the importance of good scientific evidence," said Caitlin Borgmann, a law professor at The City University of New York, to The Associated Press.
Pro-lifers, however, insist that there is scientific evidence that the 20 week-old unborn child has the ability to feel pain.
They point to pioneers in the field of fetal pain, such as Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who testified six years ago in a partial abortion case that the fetus at 20 weeks would feel "severe and excruciating pain" from the procedure.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly affirmed that states have a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting unborn human life at different stages in the pregnancy," added Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who sponsored LB 1103. "And considering the scientific evidence that the 20 week-old unborn child has the ability to feel pain, state regulation of these late term abortions is both appropriate and necessary."
According to reports, both sides of the debate on the constitutionality of the fetal pain law are prepared to take their disagreement to the court.
The new abortion laws are set to go into effect on Oct. 15.