Nebraska lawmakers voted on Friday to restrict access to abortion and medical care for transgender youth, after weeks of vociferous debate on two issues that have divided state legislators across the country this year.
Conservative lawmakers bundled provisions restricting access to both forms of medical treatment into a single bill in the final days of the legislative session.
The merger was done for practical reasons in Nebraska’s capital: As a result of persistent filibustering by Democrats, proponents of limits on abortion and transgender care were running out of time to push the issues through as stand-alone laws before the session ended.
The blended bill, known as L.B. 574, passed by a 33-to-15 vote. It includes looser restrictions than the original provisions that Republicans sought to pass. Republicans saw it as a compromise, while Democrats were furious about what they saw as a last-minute scramble to revive restrictions on abortion. Minutes after vote, opponents of the bill gathered outside the chamber and chanted, “Shame!” according to video posted by Nebraska Public Media News.
Nebraska Republicans initially had sought to ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, but that measure failed, and the amended proposal set the limit at 12 weeks. The bill includes exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies.
An earlier bill on medical treatment for transgender people would have barred minors from receiving puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgeries. But after extensive debate and back room negotiations, Republicans scaled back their goal to ensure that they would have enough support.
The proposal approved on Friday bans surgeries and calls on the state’s chief medical officer to establish criteria under which puberty blockers and hormone therapy may be administered to people younger than 19. The restriction will be enforced starting on Oct. 1.
State Senator Ben Hansen, a Republican who proposed attaching the abortion limit to the bill restricting transgender care, said neither side emerged with a clear victory.
“I feel that this is what good government is all about,” Mr. Hansen said. “We listened to what the opposition had to say, pumped the brakes and moved it through in a compromising fashion.”
Democrats in Nebraska’s 49-seat unicameral Legislature — which is nominally nonpartisan but dominated by Republicans — did not see it that way. They expressed concern that the chief medical officer, who was appointed by the Republican governor, would establish onerous requirements to access puberty blockers and hormones.
“This has the potential to be a back door to a full ban,” said Senator John Fredrickson, a Democrat from Omaha who was among the lawmakers who filibustered for weeks in an effort to block the original transgender bill. “I don’t see this as a compromise in any way, shape or form.”
The bill says that puberty blockers and hormones may be prescribed to patients who have a “long-lasting and intense pattern of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria which began or worsened at the start of puberty.” It establishes that those treatments may be administered only after a person has attended an unspecified number of psychotherapy sessions.
The bill is the latest in the nation’s fight over reproductive care. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, 14 states have banned most abortions. Restrictions are being fought in the courts in several states.
Democrats in Nebraska rejoiced last month when the effort to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy fell short by a single vote. Senator Merv Riepe, a Republican, deemed the six-week ban too severe, dooming the bill’s passage. Mr. Riepe signaled support for the 12-week ban and voted in favor of efforts to merge the two issues this week.
Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, celebrated the vote to restrict access to abortion and transgender medical care. “All children deserve a chance to grow and live happy, fruitful lives,” he said in a statement. “This includes pre-born boys and girls, and it includes children struggling with their gender identity.”
The fight over both issues shattered traditions of civility and bipartisanship in a state where lawmakers have long sought to remain removed from the divisiveness of national politics.
Senator George Dungan, a Democrat, called the bill discriminatory and predicted it would face legal challenges.
“We should not be in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” he said during the final minutes of the debate that preceded the vote on Friday afternoon. “We should not be in the business of stepping between doctors and patients.”
The intensity of the debate this year in Nebraska came partly because the transgender health care ban issue was deeply personal for Democrats. One of the chamber’s liberal lawmakers, Senator Megan Hunt, has a transgender son. During legislative debates, she angrily accused Republican colleagues of seeking to legislate away her parental rights.
Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, a Democrat who led efforts to filibuster to prevent Republicans from passing their original proposal, said those who opposed limits to abortion and transgender care would continue to fight through the courts and other means. She said that the hard-fought legislative session had galvanized activism in Nebraska.
“I think the only victory in this is that trans people, especially trans youth, are no longer invisible,” she said.