On the heels of a law requiring screening for “physical, psychological, emotional, or situational” problems before getting an abortion, Nebraska lawmakers have now challenged Roe v. Wade by banning abortions after 20 weeks, allegedly because that is when a foetus can feel pain.
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed the two separate laws on Tuesday, both the first of their kind in the United States and sure to spark heated debates in the legal, medical and religious communities.
The laws, which are set to take effect later this year, restrict Nebraskan women’s access to abortion in several ways. Abortions were previously banned after a foetus could survive outside the womb, which was often determined on a case by case basis, usually at 22-24 weeks. But the new legislation will deny abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.
Exceptions will only be granted in cases of medical emergency, death, or a serious risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.” Experts have interpreted this particular provision as an effort to exclude exceptions based on perceived harm to a woman’s mental health.
“If some of these other anti-abortion bills have been chipping away at Roe v. Wade, this takes an axe to it,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her organization and other abortion rights supporters are considering a number of options to challenge the law.
Breaking with court precedent and current medical practice, this will be the first time in US history abortion will be restricted based on the argument of foetal pain which is an increasingly controversial subject among experts in the field. Still, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it knows of no legitimate evidence that foetuses can experience pain at that stage of development.
Pro-choice groups are gearing up for a legal battle, calling the ban unconstitutional. If the Nebraska law is to be upheld, the US Supreme Court would have to overturn a number of key abortion rulings including Planned Parenthood v Casey, which allowed women to access abortions before a foetus was considered viable.
Further reports on this story appear in the New York Times.