Eight female doctors attempting to keep abortion legal in Nebraska
In the past year, a group of eight female doctors has become a major player in Nebraska’s fight over abortion, pushing themselves toward the center of perhaps the most contentious issue facing the Nebraska Legislature this session.
This group of doctors – all of whom provide reproductive care – originally formed to oppose a 2022 bill that the doctors argued would have restricted in-vitro fertilization. But the gang of eight has expanded their role, now battling any bill that would restrict abortions in Nebraska.
In the time it takes one of their patients to grow a baby, the eight doctors have formed a political action committee called Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska. They have raised nearly $400,000 and hired political advisors to target spending on legislative races. They’ve successfully campaigned to have the Nebraska Medical Association, a powerful political group, publicly oppose legislation that would restrict abortion.
“It’s really just incredible from my vantage point to see how these doctors have been able to not be hobbled by those decades of political baggage, to step forward with this fresh, clear medical perspective and be able to engage more people,” said State Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Democrat from Lincoln.
The group also managed to draw the attention of the then-highest-ranking state official, an opponent of abortion. Then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, expressed frustration with the Nebraska Medical Association last year after it adopted a resolution from the Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska doctors to oppose new abortion restrictions.
"I'm disappointed the NMA chose to adopt this radical resolution, put forward by a Democratic Party politician, that advocates for abortion up to the time of birth," Ricketts said last year, referring to one of the eight, Dr. Maureen Boyle, a Democrat who serves as a Douglas County commissioner. (The Nebraska Medical Association hasn’t specifically advocated for any rollback of current abortion restrictions, which have long allowed abortions in Nebraska up to 20 weeks.)
The doctors’ impact is uncommon. Many political newcomers don’t have the know-how, the resources and the connections to quickly make their presence felt on a high-profile issue.
But despite some success, the eight doctors say they have found their entry into the political arena a deeply frustrating process.
“I am a straight shooter. I want to tell you how it is and I don’t want to play games,” said Dr. Abigail Delaney, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine and one of the doctors in the group. “The last nine months have really shown me that, regrettably, a lot of politics is this sort of poker game. Which is a very uncomfortable place for a physician to be.”
This group of eight women were not previously savvy to politics – save for Boyle, the obstetrician-gynecologist and county commissioner whose parents, Mike and Anne Boyle, were leaders in the Nebraska Democratic Party for decades.
Along with Delaney and Boyle, the group includes reproductive endocrinologists Dr. Stephanie Gustin, Dr. Elizabeth Constance and Dr. Elizabeth Weedin at the Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine; Dr. Meghan Oakes of Methodist Reproductive Health Specialists; maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Emily Patel of Methodist Women’s Hospital and OB-GYN Dr. Jodi Hedrick of Mid-City OB-GYN.
In 2010, Nebraska became the first state to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Since then, other legislation has added restrictions to abortion access. But the state has not passed an all-out ban like several other states, including many of Nebraska’s neighbors.
In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, paving the way for states to try to enact total abortion bans. While abortion opponents in Lincoln considered a special session last year to pass such legislation, they did not call one.
That leaves this year’s legislative session as the first real test of post-Roe abortion rights in Nebraska.
In January, State Sen. Jodi Albrecht, a Republican from Thurston, introduced LB 626, a bill that would ban abortion after six weeks.
“This bill is right for Nebraska and right for the medical profession,” she said at a legislative committee hearing in early February. “This is the single most important issue that we will address as a Legislature, because this is about protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”
The eight doctors have voiced myriad reasons for supporting abortion rights as medical professionals.
They say it’s a standard part of medical care that is too complex to legislate effectively. For example, they ask, would an exception for the life of the mother include a condition where pregnancy would shorten her lifespan?
They warn that a ban would drive away medical students and doctors. They say that the Legislature shouldn’t disrupt the relationships that patients have with their doctors.
And they argue that women should be allowed to decide when, if and how they have children.
As a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, Patel treats high-risk pregnancies. She commonly sees scenarios where abortion is discussed as an option: When the pregnancy is devastating the patient’s health; when there is an issue with a fetus that’s incompatible with life; when the pregnancy isn’t progressing and won’t result in a live baby.
If an abortion ban passes in Nebraska: “I am going to be seeing the consequences and patients are going to be seeing the consequences of those decisions,” she said. “It's 100% going to lead to bad outcomes for patients and I am going to be caring for those bad outcomes.”
After the group raised hundreds of thousands of dollars – $150,000 alone from University of Nebraska regent Barbara Weitz – they hired Women Who Run, a newer political group that promotes progressive candidates with a focus on women.
With money raised by the doctors, they targeted key state legislative races with funding and advertisements to promote candidates who support abortion rights.
Women Who Run co-founder Denise Blaya Powell said the doctors were able to provide credible information in a way that reached many people.
“They were able to provide these messages in a way that people really believed, and I think that’s what was so powerful,” she said.
One pro-abortion-rights senator, John Fredrickson of Omaha, won by 82 votes after the Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska spent more than $14,000 to support his candidacy. He had trailed his opponent, Stuart Dornan, by 745 votes in the primary.
The eight doctors’ entry into the political arena hasn’t always been smooth. Early on, they say they learned the differences between a meeting in a doctor’s office and a state senator’s office.
Last year, several of the reproductive endocrinologists met with Sen. John Arch, Republican from La Vista and then the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. They described their concerns with the bill being debated at the time – an abortion ban that in the doctors’ opinion would have restricted in-vitro fertilization, a fertility treatment. With them were representatives from the Nebraska Medical Association.
The doctors say they were clear that they support access to abortion during this meeting with Arch, a former CEO for the Boys Town National Research Hospital and Clinics who wants to further restrict access to abortion.
But when asked, they also detailed the specific language in the bill that would ban IVF and how it could be changed.
This frustrated other abortion rights supporters, who believed they may have been providing a roadmap to passage of an abortion ban.
“Heading into a special session to ban abortion in NE, medical assns + their lobbyists are negotiating with anti-abortion politicians,” tweeted state Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a Democrat and pro-abortion-rights leader in the Legislature. “If they reach a deal, they should know they won't escape explicit and public responsibility for an abortion ban just because they're not elected.”
In the meeting, the doctors were trying to provide factual information, Delaney said, not trying to make any deal that would pave the way for anti-abortion legislation.
Since that meeting, the doctors say they have gotten more savvy, learning about the political system – becoming a part of it – even as they say it frustrates them.
The way politicians talk is not the way that doctors talk, these doctors say.
“I don’t think people understand how much wheeling and dealing is being done,” Oakes said. “Lobbying groups…are calling the shots.”
So they’ve enlisted another political group, the Nebraska Medical Association, which works to advance physicians’ priorities in the legislative arena.
Boyle wrote a resolution that would require the NMA to oppose any bill that restricts abortion further in Nebraska, and it passed overwhelmingly.
Conrad said the group’s work has resonated in Lincoln.
“(Doctor’s) voices at the forefront of the legislative debate in the last year or so has been game-changing,” she said.
The eight doctors drove to Lincoln to attend a Feb. 1 hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee, where the legislative panel heard testimony about Albrecht’s bill.
Constance told the committee about her experience with a patient who was diagnosed with aggressive cancer while pregnant. Her choices: terminate the pregnancy and continue with chemotherapy, or delay cancer treatment and considerably worsen her prognosis, leaving the possibility that she would not be around to see the child grow up.
“As someone who has dedicated my career to growing families in Nebraska, I can tell you unequivocally that LB 626 will harm Nebraska families,” she said.
Also testifying against the legislation: president of the NMA’s board of directors, Daniel Rosenquist of Columbus.
“These types of complex health care decisions must continue to be entrusted to physicians in conjunction with their patients,” he said.
Rosenquist noted that there are diverse views among the members of the NMA on this bill. Indeed, while dozens of physicians spoke at the hearing to oppose the bill, a handful also testified in favor of further restrictions on abortion.
The bill "would not compromise physicians' ability to care for these women," said Dr. Sean Kenney, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Bryan Health in Lincoln. "We will do whatever it takes to take care of women and provide life-saving care."
The Health and Human Services Committee has not yet voted whether to advance the bill to the full Legislature, but proponents of abortion rights expect a tough path this legislative session. The eight female doctors say they will continue to lobby and advocate on the issue, joining the efforts of longstanding organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Fund of Omaha.
“If we don’t stand up for our patients and our daughters, who will?” Boyle said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
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