Life in Nebraska after Dobbs
Pregnancy care organizations seeing more support as state saves more preborn babies
by Riley Johnson
June 24, 2022, upended the legal landscape for abortion in the United States.
Long stymied by the U.S. Supreme Court 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement in Nebraska and across the country suddenly found itself preparing for new battles to restrict abortion and safeguard the unborn.
Nebraska recorded 2,507 abortions in 2022, the most since 2009.
Changing laws on abortion in other states led to a 6% increase in Nebraska, as the number of women traveling from Kansas and Missouri to Nebraska for abortions jumped 640% from 2021, according to newly release Nebraska abortion statistics.
One year after Dobbs, Nebraska lawmakers enacted stronger legal protections for preborn babies.
Leaders of pregnancy support centers in urban and rural parts of the state say more Nebraskans have rallied to support them and their work transforming the lives of women in need. New centers are planned for the Omaha area.
Despite the several legislative victories for moms and babies in the state, work remains to build a culture of life and defend against continued threats to the most vulnerable, pro-life advocates said.
"As abortion has become more restricted, we have seen great enthusiasm in the vibrant Nebraska pro-life community," said Anne Raynor, who leads the Mater Filius maternity home in south Omaha.
UNDER THE RADAR
The summer after the Dobbs decision plans to call a special session on abortion law fizzled, leaving the matter to be decided in the 90-day 2023 Legislative session. Nebraska law then allowed abortion until 20 weeks.
Lawmakers, led by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, proposed a ban on abortion following the detection of a fetal heartbeat via ultrasound, typically around six weeks gestation.
That bill, supported by the Nebraska Catholic Conference, advanced from committee but hit a roadblock on the floor when a previously consistent, pro-life senator didn't vote to advance the heartbeat bill. The six-week-ban bill was filibustered and appeared dead for the session.
But supporters of the effort and pro-life advocates kept working.
Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair worked with Sen. Kathleen Kauth to amend Nebraska's ban on abortion to12 weeks gestation in the Let Them Grow Act, LB574, which was designed to protect children from harmful medical interventions. The act retained exceptions allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest and where it is deemed medically necessary to save the life of the mother.
This time, state lawmakers overcame another filibuster attempt amid contentious unrest inside the Nebraska State Capitol that at times disrupted legislative proceeding and led to heightened security.
Gov. Jim Pillen signed the bill into law on May 19, and the abortion ban became effective immediately.
State law had allowed abortion until 20 weeks gestation. In 2020 and 2021, nearly 300 preborn babies were aborted between 12 and 20 weeks each year, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Exactly how many babies have been saved from abortion in Nebraska because of LB574 won’t be known until June 2024, when the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services publishes statewide abortion data for 2023.
Several significant new laws also passed without as many headlines, but still made substantial headway in advancing a culture of life in Nebraska, said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
Lawmakers expanded Medicaid coverage for moms from 60 days post-birth to six months, allowing many women who experience complications during childbirth to remain covered through their recovery, Venzor said. The Catholic Conference will advocate expanding that to 12 months post-birth as many other states have adopted, he said.
There were also successes seen in laws that passed ensuring robust access to the state's SNAP, or food stamps program, creating a child care tax credit for impoverished families and allowing families school choice, Venzor said.
"It’s very critical when mothers say yes that we are walking with them in the journey before life, in the journey at birth and after birth," Venzor said.
Legal challenges continue to mount against the 12-week ban by supporters of abortion.
But there's also a challenging trend in how abortions are administered in Nebraska, he said.
Chemical or medication abortions in Nebraska have dramatically increased in the past two decades, increase from less than 1% of all abortions in 2005 to 70% currently, Venzor said. Those figures do not include prescriptions for women who have suffered a pregnancy loss through miscarriage and need medical assistance.
His team remains focused on policy changes that can address that challenge, but the Nebraska Catholic Conference is also preparing to help support those who have experienced an abortion deal with the trauma, he said, noting that trauma from chemical abortion can be more immediate.
"The church needs to be working through how do we address post-abortion healing in a chemical abortion world," Venzor said.
POWERFUL SERVICES TRANSFORMING LIVES
The overturning of Roe v. Wade didn't mark the end of the mission for Essential Pregnancy Services, which offers pregnancy counseling and support services across the Omaha Metro, Executive Director Kerri Gilson said.
Her staff has never been busier, she said. They served over 500 families in their last fiscal year and experienced an 18% increase in families served from the prior year.
The rise in medication abortion in Nebraska continues to pose a challenge for EPS in reaching women with its counseling services, Gilson said, prompting her team to change the way it engages with those in need.
"EPS is diligently exploring ways to reach more women with a message of hope and a comprehensive range of services that underscore the value we place on their lives and the lives of their unborn children," Gilson said. "We stand ready to serve with cost-free pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, STI testing and treatment, education, case management, professional counseling, and material assistance."
"For 50 years, this ministry has quietly served women in the Omaha Metro Area, and we are determined to continue serving for another 50 years and beyond!"
At Birthright Nebraska in Norfolk, the services and nonjudgmental support have remained the same, said Cindy Dinkel, who is co-director with Marie Borgmann.
They served fewer than 10 women last year, in part due to the rise in accurate home pregnancy tests, she said. Now more of the woman they serve test positive than in the past, which Dinkel believes reflects women wanting confirmation that they are pregnant.
The stigma of being an unwed mother has diminished in Nebraska over the past few decades. Fewer women seek Birthright's ongoing services because their families are supporting them through pregnancy, daycare is more accessible and employers are more accommodating, she said.
There are still women who feel alone, Dinkel said, and her team works to ensure that someone checks in on those who pass through their doors.
"We don’t get to walk with them, but we are there for whatever we can do to help them," she said.
After the baby arrives, Birthright can help moms get necessary supplies - anything but furniture.
Diapers and baby wipes remain among their biggest needs, though they prefer supporters donate to help them ensure moms and their babies get what they need and to avoid storage challenges, she said.
"We’ll do whatever we can to let them know that they’re not alone and we thank them for choosing life," Dinkel said.
The enthusiasm and support seen since the Dobbs decision has been a pleasant surprise to Anne Raynor, whose maternity home Mater Filius relies in part on volunteers to help mentor and support the moms.
Rarely do they have someone who is considering abortion when they are referred to Mater Filius, she said, but they definitely face a lot of stress.
"The pregnancy is often just secondary to what's going on their life," she said.
Since 2014, they have helped women achieve generational change by helping them establish independence that allows them to support themselves and their child, Raynor said.
Many come to the home, an old convent affiliated with Saints Peter and Paul church, without custody of their children, she said.
Mater Filius' team often works with them to achieve reunification or support their visitation, helps them to clean up problems in their lives and connects them with mental health resources.
They can house about 16 people, including children, and families can stay as long as 8 months after the baby is born, she said.
The longer they stay, the more Mater Filius' team can help.
Her organization always needs mentors to help guide Mater Filius residents in their journey to independence, Raynor said. And the end of Roe v. Wade has stirred interest in this kind of supportive work.
"We need to do more than just think about it and talk about it," she said.
A new pregnancy counseling service organization with centers in 12 states plans to open in Omaha later this summer.
Women's Care Center (WCC) hopes to open its first Omaha location at 37th and Dodge streets in September, spokeswoman Katherine Kelly said.
One of the largest pregnancy centers in the U.S., WCC opened a center in Lincoln that has served over 1,000 women. With a 28% increase in abortions in Omaha in the past five years, they believed their efforts were needed, she said.
"When we found the perfect location on the busiest street in town, we knew it was God's grace," said Kelly, whose organization was founded by a Notre Dame graduate.
The new law change in Nebraska has not affected the traffic through WCC's doors, she said, noting that most abortions in the state occur before the 12-week mark.
"It's even more important for life-affirming support to be available and accessible to vulnerable women as early as possible in pregnancy," she said. "Our new location and model of care are built to do just that, and the beautiful thing is nine in 10 women who walk through our doors ultimately choose life."
Gina Tomes, longtime leader of the Bethlehem House maternity home in Omaha, has embarked on a new venture.
Careful discernment and a constant increase in the need for housing services for women experiencing crisis pregnancies spurred Tomes to leave the maternity home she had led to found Vita Nova.
"It was on my heart to take this mission to a scalable level of care and serve more women," said Tomes, who continues to consult for Bethlehem House which is led by interim executive director Paul Parr.
Vita Nova will offer a maternity community, serving up to 50 women and their children, on the former campus of Nebraska Christian College in Papillion. Currently they are raising $15 million for the effort, which will offer housing alongside transformative, personally tailored services and educational curriculums to help moms address barriers in their lives, including homelessness, unemployment and addiction among others.
"God really built this campus for a purpose,” she said.
Instead of focusing on the angry pro-choice, pro-life debates, Tomes said it's critical to focus on moms.
"Surround women with nonjudgmental care and love and powerful services that will just transform her life," she said.
Parishes across the Archdiocese of Omaha continue to work to connect pregnant women to resources like the organizations above, through an initiative called Walking with Moms in Need.
"The best way for us to mark this anniversary and to make it meaningful for our country is to continue to do all that we can to cultivate a culture of life in our own communities and throughout our country," Archbishop of Omaha George Lucas said.
LEARN MORE ABOUT WALKING WITH MOMS IN NEED
Gov. Jim Pillen addresses Catholics at the Capitol.
Jeremy Ekeler, left, associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, speaks with Bishops James D. Conley of Lincoln and Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island during Catholics at the Capitol.
Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, speaks at Catholics at the Capitol.
Catholics at the Capitol, seated at left, watch debate over LB626, the Nebraska Heartbeat Act. They outnumbered those opposing the bill, at right.