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New report shows Nebraskans are having fewer abortions

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Bill Kelly
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Nebraska Public Media News
An abortion-rights flag waves in the wind during a protest in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The latest report from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services provides a glimpse into who is seeking abortions in the Cornhusker State.

2,360 abortions were reported in Nebraska last year, according to a new report from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The number is similar to the year prior, and suggests that the number of women seeking abortive care was moderating despite the pandemic. Still, the numbers follow a national trend of increasing abortions during the pandemic.

The report gives us a glimpse into who is seeking abortions in Nebraska: predominately women in their early 20s who say birth control or contraceptives either failed or weren’t used during sex.

The new numbers come a week after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, which eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion. While Nebraskans are still able to access abortions, a special session of the Nebraska Legislature might be called to further restrict the procedure.

The report says:

  • The most common age of a patient seeking an abortion in 2021 was 22
  • 9% were between the ages of 15 and 19
  • 31% of patients seeking an abortion were between the ages of 20 and 24
  • 28% were between the ages of 25 and 29

“A lot of people who reach out to our organization are in vulnerable and desperate situations for something that seems so simple and that should be really accessible and is basic health care,” Chelsea Souder, director of Nebraska Abortion Resources said.

The organization, known as NEAR, started helping people receive abortion care in January 2022. Souder said the patients her group typically supports don’t have medical insurance and are already parents. The abortion fund founder said the people her group helps are usually grateful for the free help and support, which includes paying for travel and lodging costs.

“We appreciate that but at the same time, we are constantly saying to folks, ‘We're sorry that this is what you have to go through. You don't need to justify your decisions to us or the rest of the world,’” Souder said. “We trust you, as human beings, to make the best decision for your body and for your families and for your futures.”

The Nebraska Family Alliance, a group that opposes abortion rights, believes mothers can be supported through their pregnancy if future laws restrict abortion access. Nate Grasz, the Alliance’s policy director, hopes more people consider keeping a pregnancy.

“We've never sought just to overturn Roe,” Grasz said. “The pro-life movement primarily exists to save lives, to empower women and support full families thriving,” Grasz said.

He hopes for a broader cultural change that provides greater social support to all parents.

The Nebraska Family Alliance is hoping the Nebraska legislature passes legislation, whether that be in a special session or next legislative session, that would further restrict abortion opportunities. Nebraska currently allows abortions up to 20 weeks after fertilization.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told CNN in May, following the leak of Samuel Alito’s draft decision, that he would support a complete abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest.

“Those are babies too,” Ricketts told CNN.

A chilling effect on healthcare?

The report says most of the abortion procedures occurred through the use of medication: 1,709. Two other ways medical staff provided abortions included: dilatation and extraction (D&X) and suction, procedures that commonly occur after miscarriages or in late-term abortions.

Andi Curry Grubb, Planned Parenthood’s Nebraska Executive Director, said it’s important to note that abortions aren’t only used in the early stages after accidental pregnancies. They are also used to save the life of a pregnant person, where fetal anomalies could be deadly.

“Some folks choose abortion because it's the healthiest option for their body,” Grubb said, noting that if abortions were banned “I can almost guarantee that we would see an increase in maternal mortality, which is already pretty bad in our state, particularly for Black women.”

As ProPublica has found, the United States has a higher maternal mortality rate than other developed countries, with Black women dying at rates three times higher than White women. However, in an amicus brief filed as part of the Dobbs case, abortion rights advocates rank Nebraska’s maternal supports higher than many other Southern states, although the state was still listed as a place of concern.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ document also details the reasons patients gave as to why they were seeking an abortion. One-third of patients declined to answer. Of those that answered, 38%, reported they and their partner did not use contraception. 16% said their contraception failed. Others pointed to other factors in their number-one reason to get an abortion: fetal anomaly, the endangerment of their lives, mental health, sexual assault, and socio-economic reasons.

“Not allowing folks to make the decision that's the healthiest for their bodies and their personal health. We're going to see health implications of that without a doubt,” Grubb said.

She hopes lawmakers should keep women's’ health in mind as they decide if and how to further restrict abortion. Depending on the language, restrictions can have chilling effects for some doctors.

Noting Texas’ SB8, which allows people to sue anyone involved in an abortion procedure in Texas, Grubb said she’s heard of some obstetricians and gynecologists hesitating to perform procedures because they fear legal action.

“These are people who have been trained in medical procedures – they are trained professionals,” Grubb said. “Some of these are folks who have been practicing for years, for decades. And they're hesitating to treat their patients, because a non-medically trained legislator is telling them what they can and can't do in their practice.”

Depending on the nature of the ban, Grubb said, it’s possible Nebraska will continue to lose young people due to being viewed as a state not safe for women — that would make the state’s workforce problems worse.

A changing landscape

While many other Republican-led states have already taken action to restrict abortions in their states, Nebraska is in a minority that has taken a slower approach. Abortions are still available in Iowa and Kansas as well, but both states are making moves to further restrict the procedure.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has said that she hopes to pass a ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill, but she doesn’t plan to call for a special session of the Iowa Legislature to do so. Such a bill could mean most abortions could not be performed after 6 weeks post-fertilization.

In Kansas, voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion. Abortion clinics in Wichita and Overland Park have been flooded with women seeking care from Oklahoma, Texas and other southern states.

What comes next?

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he would like to see no abortions performed in Nebraska, now that states have the power to restrict the procedure.

Abortion-rights and anti-abortion rights groups are preparing behind the scenes for a potential special session. Ricketts hasn’t made a decision yet. Earlier this year, anti-abortion bills failed in the state legislature by a narrow margin.

If state senators were to secure enough votes for anti-abortion legislation, abortion rights groups say that will have immense ramifications other than stripping people of their healthcare options.

Grubb pointed to ways the state wouldn’t be ready for an increase of young new mothers.

“There is no paid family leave in Nebraska. There is very limited access to Medicaid. People who are pregnant can get Medicaid for 60 days, and that's nothing when you're in the wake of having a child – particularly if you've had a C section or if you've had any complications,” Grubb said.

The abortion-rights advocate stressed that those options are all needed to support new parents – on top of abortion access.

The Nebraska Family Alliance disagreed. Nate Grasz, the Alliance’s policy director, said the state is already in a good position to accept more births and more new parents, if the legislature eventually bans abortions.

“I think it'll be essential that the state and the private sector are doing everything we can to provide more resources, to those who are in need, so that we can really embrace life and support full families thriving,” Grasz said.

The Nebraska Family Alliance said it’ll look at bolstering its efforts to improve systems in place that support children.

“There are currently more families waiting to adopt than children being placed for adoption. And I think we need to be looking for ways to improve our foster care and adoption system while keeping necessary safeguards in place to make it easier and more affordable for families to continue to step up to open up their homes,” Grasz said.

The Nebraska Family Alliance also said it would like to see an increase in education on life inside the womb. Grasz said expecting mothers should consider adoption instead of abortion.

“I think it's really important that we remember that these aren't just numbers – that there's a baby behind every one of these statistics, and also a mother and a father,” Grasz said. “These are real people with real stories, who deserve care and compassion, and real support.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

For more in-depth news from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, we invite you to follow us on Twitter.

Daniel Wheaton is the data journalist for the Midwest Newsroom. Wheaton is based at Nebraska Public Media in Lincoln, Nebraska, and can be reached at dwheaton@nebraskapublicmedia.org
"Morning Edition" host and reporter Jackie Ourada has been with Nebraska Public Media since 2021. She joined Nebraska's PBS and NPR stations after producing KETV newscasts in Omaha for two years and reporting for KFOR's newsroom in Lincoln while in college. Jackie is a native of Crete, Nebraska, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.