LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Expressing fear for their patients and livelihoods, physicians who treat women experiencing difficult pregnancies or in need of reproductive services like in vitro fertilization are stepping into the political arena to oppose a ban on abortion.
A group of specialists recently formed a political action committee, the Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska, in hopes of impacting the upcoming debate by the Nebraska Legislature over the emotional issue of abortion.
The physicians-turned-politicians have already engaged a lobbyist, established a website, and have begun seeking donations ($17,000 at last count). They also set up a Facebook page, Save IVF Nebraska, that has amassed 1,400 followers in only a week’s time.
Doctors should be absolutely scared for their livelihood
– State Sen. Adam Morfeld
The specialists are also reaching out to state legislators in hopes of making a difference. A new abortion ban proposal may be introduced in a special session of the State Legislature, which could occur as early as August or September, though the debate could wait until the next regular session, which begins in January.
The doctors launched their effort just after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25 struck down Roe v. Wade, and have already conducted several interviews with Nebraska media over the past week to get their story out.
“We’re in the fight of our lives right now for our patients and what we do,” said Dr. Emily Patel, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with Methodist Health Systems in west Omaha. She treats women facing difficult pregnancies.
“We have taken an oath to take care of patients and do what we’ve been trained to do for years, and we’re now facing criminal prosecution,” she said. “It’s unprecedented.”
To be sure, doctors have always been involved in the political process, and physicians were involved during the debate this spring over Legislative Bill 933, the Nebraska Human Life Protection Act.
I think abortion supporters are preying on peoples' emotions and trying to stoke as much fear and confusion as possible
– Nate Grasz, Nebraska Family Alliance
That bill, which failed to overcome a filibuster by two votes, proposed to ban abortion except to save the life of the mother. It would have made it a Class IIA felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, for anyone to perform an abortion or provide medicines to end the life of an unborn child. The bill raised concerns that it would ban in vitro fertilization, and bar physicians from intervening when a pregnant woman faced life-threatening, medical complications.
Now, the Examiner has learned, there’s already a bill being drafted to address those concerns and fashion legislation that will draw enough votes — 33 of the 49 state senators — to pass, if a special session is called, which observers say is not a guarantee.
Physicians who specialize in caring for women experiencing problem pregnancies or couples with infertility issues say they have unique issues, and need to be more involved in this debate.
“Our goal is to keep the government out of our exam room,” said Dr. Elizabeth Weedin, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at the Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine. She said she is one of six such specialists in the state.
“We all worked a lot of hours to be able to do what we do — to be able to care for women,” she said. “To have that be threatened, it’s scary for our patients, and it’s scary for our livelihoods.”
The best outcome would be not discussing this around a legislative table but leaving decisions on health care to a physician and their patients
– Dr. Elizabeth Weedin, Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine
The Nebraska Medical Association, the umbrella organization which represents nearly 3,000 physicians in the state, took no position this spring on whether elective abortion should be banned. But the NMA fought aspects of LB 933 that would criminalize doctors and sought protections in the bill so that procedures like in vitro fertilization were not impacted by an abortion ban.
“We want to make certain that women have the ability to receive the necessary medical-based treatment when experiencing a medical condition that impacts their life,” said Amy Reynoldson, executive vice president of the NMA.
But the Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska is taking it a step further, opposing any abortion ban. Two members of the group reason that it is impossible to craft an amendment that bans abortion but allows them to continue serving their patients.
For instance, where do you draw the line where a physician can intervene to save the life of a mother?
“The topic is so incredibly nuanced and there’s so many shades of gray,” Patel said. “You really need a medical background to be able to understand the nuances.”
“The best outcome would be not discussing this around a legislative table but leaving decisions on health care to a physician and their patients,” Weedin said.
Patel, an Omaha native, said she’s scared that physicians like herself could face prison for just discussing the medical options, such as an abortion, with a pregnant woman facing a difficult pregnancy.
Weedin, who grew up in Waverly but, like Patel, sought to practice in Nebraska after years of training, said that 2% of all children in the U. S. are born through IVF.
During that process, several eggs are fertilized and embryos are created. But, not all the embryos naturally will grow. Weedin said that LB 933 was so vague in labeling life as starting at fertilization that it left physicians and staff vulnerable to prosecution.
‘Cannot practice out of fear’
“We cannot practice out of fear of prosecution. It really handcuffs us,” she said.
Both physicians said that if an abortion ban went into effect, they’re afraid that patients would be forced to seek health care elsewhere, and that doctors with such specialized training would have to move out of the state.
But opponents of abortion maintain that the fears of fertility doctors and other physicians are overblown, though they acknowledge a need to clarify some issues in the next legislative proposal.
Nate Grasz of the Nebraska Family Alliance said that the intent of LB 933 was to outlaw elective abortion, not IVF, contraceptives or other legitimate health care.
“I think abortion supporters are preying on peoples’ emotions and trying to stoke as much fear and confusion as possible,” Grasz said.
Concerns will be addressed
“I’m confident that any (new) bill will make it unmistakably clear that this is about stopping elective abortion,” he said. “Any concerns about medical care, contraceptives, or in vitro fertilization will be taken care of.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts, a supporter of banning abortion, said last week that it’s clear that a new bill will have to be different, given that LB 933 didn’t have the votes to pass. He said a new bill will clarify that IVF can continue.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld, who argued that LB 933 would outlaw IVF during the legislative debate this spring, said it is “incredibly difficult” to legislate exceptions to abortion because of the complexity of the medical issues.
“Doctors should be absolutely scared for their livelihood,” Morfeld said.
Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who also led the charge against LB 933, said that last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court removing the constitutional right to abortion has “activated” many people and groups who weren’t politically active before, not just the medical specialists.
“When the stakes are this high – IVF doctors not being able to practice, physicians being charged with felonies, miscarriages being criminalized — it’s easy to panic,” Hunt said.
Both Patel and Weedin said their group’s main goal is to educate Nebraskans about what they do, and the dangers they might face if abortion is banned.
“Nebraskans are excellent at making decisions about their health care,” Weedin said. “We don’t need the government in our exam rooms.”
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