Pro-life bill passes first vote, thanks in part to Catholics at the Capitol
April 13, 2023
Some providential timing may have helped secure first-round approval for a pro-life bill that could be history in the making.
State Sen. Joni Albrecht – the sponsor of LB626, known as the Nebraska Heartbeat Act – said people have been praying for a pro-life opportunity like this for 50 years.
The measure, which cleared a major legislative hurdle with the April 12 vote, would prevent an estimated 85% of abortions in the state and save about 2,000 lives a year, proponents have said.
The bill advanced on a 33-16 vote. It would protect babies from abortion once a heartbeat is detected, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy, with some exceptions.
The vote seemed to have been helped by divine timing, coinciding with the ninth annual Catholics at the Capitol event, which drew more than 275 people, a record attendance.
Dressed in red to support the heartbeat bill, participants sat in on parts of the eight-hour debate and took part in a noon press conference and rally outside the Capitol in support of LB626.
Did the crowd from Catholics at the Capitol make a difference?
“Absolutely,” said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which organized the event.
“We heard from multiple senators that the presence of Catholics at the Capitol was edifying,” he said. “It brought them courage. It reminded them that they’re in solidarity with a lot of great Nebraskans on this issue.
“I really think it lifted their spirits to know that our side was there in full force, that we were with them, we were watching, we were supporting, we were praying for them, that we’ve got their back on this issue.”
“It really emboldened them to be courageous advocates for life yesterday,” he said.
NO LONGER QUIET
More than half of those attending Catholics at the Capitol were first-time participants, according to an informal show of hands.
They included Cleo Hanna of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna, who officially entered the Catholic Church less than a week ago.
She and her sons, Joseph and Justin, went to the Capitol last year and watched a pro-life measure fail because of a filibuster. It was heartbreaking, she said.
“I was thinking: We’re in Nebraska. How can this happen?”
Before, Hanna said, she had been one of the quiet conservatives who had been mentioned earlier by a speaker at Catholics at the Capitol.
But no longer. Ending abortion has become her cause, she said.
Anna Meis, of St. Boniface Parish in Elgin, also was a first-time participant.
“I thought I needed to come,” Meis said. “God put it on my heart that I needed to come. The time is right.”
“I would love to see this vote be successful,” she said. “We’ve been praying pretty hard for it. I think people realize it’s possible.”
Tom and Kathryn Russell, of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha, have been to several Catholics at the Capitol gatherings. They enjoy advocating on important issues with like-minded Catholics, Tom said.
“It’s always been a great event” that’s been uplifting and affirming, he said.
More and more, people can’t simply stand by and be silent, Venzor said.
“People see what’s going on in the culture and they no longer want to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “They want to engage, and they see Catholics at the Capitol as a way to enter into the political sphere.
“People were also clearly motivated to be present and support the Nebraska Heartbeat Act,” Venzor said. “They knew their voice was going to matter in a very tangible and real way with the debate and the event going on at the same time.”
Catholics at the Capitol encouraged people to pray and get involved in the political process and offered tips for advocacy and updates on a number of legislative bills.
One of those is LB753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act. The bill would provide tax credits for donations toward private-school scholarships that would help students and families in need.
Other bills would help low-income mothers, strengthen religious liberty, protect medical conscience rights and shield children from so-called gender-affirming care.
But on the day of an important vote, the Nebraska Heartbeat Act took center stage.
Many people had already signed up for Catholics at the Capitol before organizers found out the timing for the heartbeat bill debate. Learning just days before the event that it would coincide with the legislative debate helped boost attendance further, Venzor said.
Catholics from 46 of Nebraska’s 49 legislative districts attended, said Paige Brown, communications and outreach specialist at the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
Participants were led in prayer by Bishop Joseph G. Hanefeldt of the Diocese of Grand Island and heard from Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Gov. Jim Pillen and several state senators.
Archbishop George J. Lucas had other commitments and was not able to attend.
WINNING IN INCREMENTS
Some of the exceptions in the heartbeat bill – for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest or ones that threaten a mother’s life – are not ideal for Catholics, who believe life is always sacred from the moment of conception. But the exceptions were necessary to gain enough support to survive a filibuster, Venzor said, and could save thousands of lives.
Current Nebraska law prevents abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, which was a groundbreaking accomplishment in 2010. But other states have since passed laws that further protect unborn babies, making Nebraska a destination state for abortion, according to Venzor.
He said passage of LB626 would not just be an incremental step, but “an incremental leap” for Nebraskans.
Continued prayer and more advocacy are needed to make that happen, he said.
“We just need people praying, spending time with the Blessed Sacrament, asking for Our Lady’s intercession. The other thing is to continue to advocate, regardless of whether their senator is the most staunch pro-life senator or the most staunch pro-abortion senator. They need to hear from their constituents.”
“Advocate. Advocate. Advocate,” Venzor said. “Be cordial, be charitable and continue to advocate for the unborn and their mothers.”