Nebraska attorney general won’t defend law requiring health screenings before abortion

By Timberly Ross, AP
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Neb. AG won’t defend law on abortion screenings

OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska’s attorney general will not defend a new state law requiring health screenings for women seeking abortions because there’s little chance the controversial law will prevail in court, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Attorney General Jon Bruning agreed to a permanent federal injunction against enforcement of the law, which faces a challenge from Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said his spokeswoman Shannon Kingery.

“It is evident from the judge’s ruling (to temporarily block the law from taking effect) that LB594 will ultimately be found unconstitutional,” she said. “Losing this case would require Nebraska taxpayers to foot the bill for Planned Parenthood’s legal fee.”

“We will not squander the state’s resources on a case that has very little probability of winning.”

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland filed a lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Nebraska over the law approved in the spring by state lawmakers. The group said the measure could be difficult to comply with and could require doctors to give women irrelevant information.

Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said court documents were filed within minutes of Bruning’s announcement to make the injunction permanent. A federal judge still must sign off on the agreement, though it wasn’t immediately known when that would be.

“We have maintained from day one … that this law was unconstitutional, and we are coming close to end of this legal battle,” June said.

The law would require women wanting abortions to be screened by doctors or other health professionals to determine whether they had risk factors indicating they could have mental or physical problems after an abortion. If screening wasn’t performed or was performed inadequately, a woman with mental or physical problems resulting from an abortion could file a civil lawsuit, according to the law. Doctors would not face criminal charges or lose their medical licenses.

The law was to take effect July 15, but U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp has temporarily blocked it from taking effect.

Smith Camp, in that ruling, said the evidence presented so far showed that the screening law would make it harder for women to get an abortion in Nebraska by requiring screenings that could be impossible to perform under a literal reading of the law. She also said the law would put abortion providers at risk of crippling lawsuits.

“The effect of LB 594 will be to place substantial, likely insurmountable, obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions in Nebraska,” Smith Camp said in the ruling.

State Sen. Cap Dierks of Ewing, who had introduced the measure in the Nebraska Legislature, said he’s disappointed with Bruning’s decision and if anti-abortion groups want him to pursue similar legislation next session, he’ll do so.

“I think it was a very important piece of legislation for women in our state,” he said. “Whatever we need to do to make it acceptable, we’ll do.”

Greg Schleppenbach of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which had worked with Dierks on the measure, said he agreed with Bruning that the chances of winning in court were slim. Schleppenbach said his group would push for new legislation on abortion screenings that would survive a constitutional challenge.

“We are still absolutely committed to what we believe is an important commonsense informed principle,” he said.

Nebraska Right to Life executive director Julie Schmit-Albin said her group will defer to Dierks and the Nebraska Catholic Conference on the decision to pursue future legislation on abortion screenings. Her group had been involved in the other controversial abortion measure passed by Nebraska lawmakers this spring that Gov. Dave Heineman signed into law.

That law — the first of its kind in the U.S. — would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks based on assertions from some doctors that fetuses feel pain at that stage of development. That law is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 15, but a legal challenge is possible from Bellevue abortion doctor LeRoy Carhart.

Schmit-Albin, whose group has taken elected officials to task over their position on abortion, defended Bruning’s decision not to fight for the screening law.

“Any suggestion that Attorney General Bruning is shirking his responsibility to defend pro-life legislation is not shared by Nebraska Right to Life.” she said. If a legal challenge is filed against the fetal pain law “we are confident that the attorney general will vigorously defend any attack on that law. LB1103 has a solid legislative history based upon medical documentation and testimony.”


U.S. District Court, Nebraska:

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