After two hours of debate Thursday, Nebraska senators advanced a bill that would make it illegal to injure an unborn child.
LB57 proposes to criminally charge anyone who intentionally or accidentally injures an unborn child but it doesn't apply to abortion. Depending on the manner of the assault, the assailant could be charged with a felony in the first or second degree or a misdemeanor in the third degree.
Senators advanced the bill to final reading, and its next step could be to the governor's desk.
The main discussion stemmed from an amendment by Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln. He proposed to add the mother as a person who could be criminally charged with assault of an unborn child.
Beutler's amendment failed, but many senators said it brought up a good issue.
A pregnant woman shouldn't be exempted from the law, Beutler said, because she could cause the most harm to the unborn child, through means such as illegal drug use. The amendment excluded alcohol because it's a legal substance, Beutler said, but alcohol probably should count.
“I'm interested in this amendment for a number of reasons, but I think we are all interested in overcoming the meth problem in our society,'' he said. “(It) brings the mother of the child in under the law,''
Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha said the amendment opens the doors to make women see that they should consider the best for themselves and their unborn children.
But some senators didn't see any merit in the amendment.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said some women who use drugs might not know that they're pregnant. Some pregnant women don't use drugs to directly harm the fetus, but they can't live without it, he said.
“A fetus or zygote can't survive without the woman,'' he said. “There shouldn't be a risk to criminalize the woman and make her burdens even heavier.''
Beutler also argued that if a mother injured a born child, she would be prosecuted – and an unborn child should have the same consideration.
Sen. Dwite Pedersen of Elkhorn, a substance abuse counselor, said he has worked with pregnant women who use illegal drugs. But some of those women are immature and didn't realize the implications, Pedersen said, and others don't know any better.
“To criminalize these women would be a sin,'' he said. “Let's not criminalize these women because they did not know what they were doing nor could they help (doing it).''
However, Sen. Mike Foley of Lincoln proposed LB57 and said the bill wasn't drafted against mothers. Foley said he doesn't support Beutler's amendment because that wasn't his intention when writing the bill.
If the amendment passed, Foley said it would create an inconsistency with the fetal homicide law that was adopted in 2002. The fetal homicide law holds third parties accountable for killing a fetus but doesn't pertain to abortion.
Foley called to vote and end the filibuster – an ongoing discussion that prevents action being taken on a bill – 34-1 senators supported his request.
Chambers said he was going to try to delay action taken on this bill because it doesn't take into consideration the woman who is needed for the fetus to exist.
“I am going to fight against this amendment as I would the bill,'' Chambers said.