Nebraska abortion law opens new front in US debate
The state of Nebraska has opened a new front in America’s war over abortion, passing a law that shifts the emphasis away from the viability of the unborn baby to survive outside the womb and on to a previously legally untested concept of foetal pain.
Two laws signed by the governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, represent a bold attempt by local anti-abortionists to undermine the constitutional right to an abortion established in the supreme court ruling Roe v Wade in 1973. Pro-abortion groups denounced the legislation as the most extreme attack yet on women’s reproductive rights.
The foetal-pain law bans abortions in Nebraska beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy. It cites claims by some doctors that by that stage foetuses show signs that they avoid certain stimuli, indicating that they feel pain, though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists insists there is no evidence to support that.
Only in cases of a pregnant woman’s imminent death or substantial physical harm would exceptions be allowed.
In a second law, all women seeking an abortion in Nebraska would have to be screened for any mental health or other “risk factors” that could arise as a result of the procedure.
The reliance on pain marks a dramatic switch away from previous definitions of legal abortion as set down by a succession of supreme court rulings since Roe v Wade. The cut-off point has been determined as the viability of the foetus, which is assessed on an individual basis but usually falls between 22 and 24 weeks.
Although legislators in Nebraska have presented the law as a reform based on science, there is a strong political incentive behind their action. In May last year George Tiller, one of the only doctors in America who performed abortions in late stages of pregnancy, was shot and killed by an anti-abortion campaigner, Scott Roeder.
Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kansas, was closed and attention on the most emotive cases of late abortions transferred to Nebraska where another doctor, LeRoy Carhart, promised to take over some of Tiller’s casework. Local politicians in Nebraska feared that the centre of the abortion debate would pass from Kansas, where daily and sometimes violent demonstrations were held outside Tiller’s clinic for years, to their home state.
The foetal pain law is likely to be swiftly challenged by pro-abortion groups and may well end up before the supreme court. The Centre for Reproductive Rights said the ban on abortions after 20 weeks “clearly violates the constitution”.