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In Nebraska, issues of immigration and abortion collide

A bill is withdrawn that would have provided prenatal care for illegal immigrants. It had support from the state's powerful antiabortion contingent, but immigration has stirred growing anger here.

March 22, 2010|By DeeDee Correll

Reporting from Denver — Nebraska long has regarded itself as a staunchly antiabortion state.

But for months, the state has wrestled with an issue that pits its signature conviction against another belief -- that illegal immigrants should not receive tax-supported services.

So two viewpoints collided with this question: Should Nebraska pay for prenatal care for the unborn children of illegal immigrants?

For many, the answer is an unqualified yes. "We don't accept that borders should be put ahead of babies," said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life.

But others say that people in the country illegally should not reap state benefits. A bill that would have made prenatal care available for illegal immigrants was withdrawn last week in the Legislature.

"The key issue," said Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who opposes abortion, "is whether illegal immigrants should be receiving taxpayer-funded benefits."

His opposition to the bill led to a victory for anti-immigration forces, shocking many who viewed Nebraska's antiabortion stance -- and, by extension, its commitment to the unborn -- as inviolable.

"This is a significant step back for Nebraska," said state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, one of several other lawmakers who called on the governor to reverse his stance.

Picking sides

The issue arose unexpectedly in December. For decades, Nebraska mistakenly allowed illegal immigrants to receive prenatal care under Medicaid, even though they were not eligible for the program.

When federal officials realized the error, they ordered Nebraska to stop, ending service for about 850 pregnant women.

Some lawmakers quickly defined the situation as a pro-life and pro-child issue and moved to fill the gap in coverage, introducing a bill to enroll the fetuses in a children's insurance program that uses both state and federal dollars and would permit coverage, regardless of the mothers' legal status.

Supporters lined up. "I've never seen the kind of coalition built before -- faith groups, pro-life groups, healthcare providers, community organizations," Nordquist said.

Yet sentiment against illegal immigration has grown strong in the state in recent years.

Heineman's opposition to in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants helped secure his 2006 victory, said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

"What makes this fascinating is the usual conservative confluence of anti-immigration and pro-life is being pulled apart. People are having to make a choice on those things," Hibbing said. "I don't think we've ever had to pick before."

Heineman eventually came out against the bill, and so did other lawmakers who characterized the issue as a practical matter.

State Sen. Dave Pankonin noted that the state faces a $670-million deficit and would have to cut many programs. "This program, as valid as it may be, it's not as high a priority," he said.

The bill's supporters called the approach short-sighted, saying babies who don't receive prenatal care may require expensive healthcare later on.

Few options left

It had appeared the bill would prevail, but last week legislators wavered, saying constituents were pressuring them not to support it.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Kathy Campbell, withdrew the bill Wednesday, although she said she would pursue the matter later.

With services for pregnant illegal immigrants halted, some are trying to pay for services on their own, said Dr. Kristine McVea, medical director for OneWorld Community Health Center, which serves low-income and uninsured patients in Omaha.

Others are skipping appointments, and she said at least two women at her clinic already had taken a more drastic step that other women were now contemplating.

"One woman said, 'I've got a 2-year-old at home. I'm struggling financially. I just can't do any more than I'm already doing,' " McVea said.

After her coverage ended March 1, McVea said, the woman had an abortion.

Correll writes for The Times.

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