‘I’m really sorry’ – Nebraska lawmaker tells woman he failed her during abortion ban negotiations

An 81-year-old state senator gave up a little-noticed provision at the end of Nebraska’s high-stakes abortion debate. It may have changed the story for a 43-year-old Omaha mom.

When Nebraska lawmakers last year banned abortion at 12 weeks, Amanda never thought she’d be a passenger in a car bound for Illinois to get one.

She couldn’t fathom she’d be driving seven hours – and spending nearly $10,000 – to have an abortion, months after a key Omaha state senator didn’t fight for an exception that may have changed her story.

Sen. Merv Riepe, an Omaha Republican and the pivotal 33rd vote to pass that 12-week ban, now says he regrets surrendering the exception during negotiations with Gov. Jim Pillen’s office. It could have allowed abortions for some lethal fetal anomalies – essentially women carrying fetuses that doctors have determined won’t survive. 

It’s unclear if that exception would have applied to Amanda. And if it had become law, that law would have created some confusion, experts say. 

Still, Amanda regrets Riepe’s decision, too.

“It’s so heartbreaking that the doctors that I’m getting care from — I’m going to their office and creating that relationship — he can’t take care of me,” she said.

This week, a Flatwater Free Press reporter told Riepe the story of Amanda, the Omaha woman who agreed to be interviewed only if her real name wasn’t used. The state senator was asked what he would say to her.

“I would tell her I was sorry, that I was not tuned-in enough on this thing, that I failed,” Riepe said. “I don’t know what you say after you say ‘I’m really sorry.’”  

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Sen. Merv Riepe on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. The Omaha-area Republican tanked a six-week abortion ban last year, and originally fought for an exception that would have allowed longer abortion access for women carrying fetuses who likely wouldn’t survive. But he then dropped that exception, and voted for a 12-week abortion ban that became law. He now says he regrets dropping the exception. Photo courtesy of Nebraska News Service

The 81-year-old lawmaker and the 43-year-old from midtown Omaha collide in this tale of a high-stakes political negotiation and its potential real-world impact on one Omaha mother.

Amanda, a medical professional, was eager for another child and overjoyed when she found out she was pregnant earlier this year. 

But a sense of gloom hit her when a prenatal blood test came back with a flag for a genetic condition. 

At 16 weeks, she had another confirmatory test. At 20 weeks, after an agonizing wait, she was told the fetus had a chromosomal anomaly so rare that her doctor had never before seen it. 

She read every research paper she could find on the anomaly, spoke with a genetic counselor and sought out support groups. 

Additional ultrasounds showed the fetus appeared to have a much smaller head than expected – the brain wasn’t developing properly.

During an interview, Amanda described being overwhelmed by a nervous breakdown, mental anguish that left her bedridden for three weeks. But she knew she had to make a decision – she was now 23 weeks pregnant.

Lethal fetal anomalies are typically discovered weeks or months after the 12-week mark now enshrined in Nebraska law, experts say. Their discovery presents an oft-brutal choice for pregnant patients, some of whom would have never otherwise considered abortion: Carry to term, or terminate. 

Riepe, an anti-abortion conservative, became a seemingly unlikely torch bearer for abortion rights advocates last year. The Nebraska Legislature first considered a six-week ban, a drastic shift from the previous state law that allowed abortion up to about 22 weeks of pregnancy.

The six-week ban appeared poised to pass. It needed 33 votes. 

But Riepe introduced an amendment that would have made the bill a roughly 14-week ban with an exception for lethal fetal anomalies. He then angered other conservatives by withholding his support for the six-week ban. It tanked the bill, and for a time, cast doubt on the passage of any new abortion restrictions in Nebraska.

It won him many enemies, and many fans. He inspired the creation of “Hot Merv Summer” T-shirts – he owns one, he said. And he attracted the attention of Gov. Pillen, who released a statement urging Riepe to reconsider.

The photo of a tank top created by an Iowa-based T-shirt and apparel company, RAYGUN, that has an Omaha store. Riepe briefly became an unlikely darling for abortion-rights advocates last year, before eventually voting for the bill that banned abortion at 12 weeks in Nebraska. Photo courtesy of RAYGUN

Before the six-week vote, Riepe and Pillen met in Pillen’s office one-on-one, Riepe said. Pillen explained how much the vote meant to him. 

After the vote, Pillen showed up in Riepe’s interior office on his own, without any staff, according to Riepe. The governor was frustrated.

The governor closed the door and told him: “I will give you the 12 weeks,” Riepe recalled. 

Pillen’s spokesperson, Laura Strimple, denied this version of events.

“Gov. Pillen never told Sen. Riepe he would accept bumping the ban from six to 12 weeks in the immediate aftermath of the vote,” Strimple said in a statement. “That is absolutely not true.” 

Gov. Jim Pillen

Pillen was supportive of Riepe while others got angry, Strimple said, “as part of his efforts to hold the pro-life community together” after the six-week ban failed. He even went to the senator’s fundraiser a day after the vote, she said.

Riepe and Kenny Zoeller, the governor’s policy director, then met several times to work out the details of the final bill that passed, Riepe said.  

Things moved quickly after the Legislature combined abortion restrictions with another bill that restricted gender-affirming care, he said. Sen. Ben Hansen, a Republican from Blair, introduced the amendment that rolled the two efforts into one bill.

During debate, Hansen agreed to work with Riepe to get any potential criminal penalties for doctors repealed during the 2024 session. 

Riepe voted to end the filibuster against the bill, and then voted for its passage.

But during this final flurry of activity, Riepe was in a brief position of power, he said. He now regrets voluntarily giving up an exception for lethal fetal anomalies during negotiations.

“There was so much coming after me, that I didn’t do a good enough job – because it was a pressured decision. I’m not blaming anybody else but me that I missed it,” he said, referring to the lack of an exception for anomalies.

Riepe says he now regrets not protecting a medical exception allowing abortions for women carrying fetuses that likely won’t survive. When told the story of an Omaha woman who may have qualified for this exception, and ended up driving to Illinois, he apologized. “I would tell her I was sorry, that I was not tuned-in enough on this thing, that I failed,” Riepe told the Flatwater Free Press. “I don’t know what you say after you say ‘I’m really sorry.’”  Photo courtesy of Nebraska News Service

Riepe introduced a bill this year to allow for abortions up to 20 weeks if the fetus has a lethal anomaly, and to get rid of potential criminal penalties for medical providers. 

Qualifying for the exception would require that two doctors diagnose the fetus with a terminal condition that “in their reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment” would result in death at or after birth.

At the bill’s public hearing, Riepe said he felt “compelled to right a wrong.”

The bill stalled in committee. 

“The real losers are the women in the state,” he said.

Amanda felt that loss, she said, as well as serious stress and deep pain, as she began to call abortion clinics in other states this spring.

She contacted a clinic in Iowa that didn’t have any openings. She booked two other appointments in two different states, the second two weeks after the first to ensure a spot as she continued weighing her decision. 

“We had the appointment and knew that we couldn’t really drag it out anymore,” she said. 

In April, she and her husband drove seven hours to an Illinois clinic east of St. Louis. The procedure lasted three days. It cost $6,000. Her insurance company considered the procedure elective and refused to cover it. The couple also paid for the hotel stay and gas.

She hasn’t stopped thinking about it since.  

“I live with this every five minutes of the day for the last three months,” she said. 

In May, a month after Amanda’s Illinois abortion, the Nebraska Republican Party voted to censure Riepe because of his actions. He said he considers the censure a “badge of courage.” 

It’s not clear whether Riepe will try to pass a similar bill again, since multiple abortion ballot measures appear to be headed for a vote this November.

Many Americans, often on religious or moral grounds, think abortion should be illegal in cases like Amanda’s, where the health or future viability of the fetus is in doubt.

Only 12% of Americans polled by Gallup in May said abortion should be banned in all cases, but 33% surveyed said it should be legal “only in a few circumstances.” 

Two recent polls by Pew Research and CBS News found that roughly 60% of Americans polled say abortion should be legal most or all of the time, while 40% say it should be illegal in most or all cases.

And even if medical exceptions make it into law, they often don’t completely address physicians’ concerns. 

Exceptions offer windows for physicians to offer care, but can also introduce new legal gray areas, said Nisha Verma, an Atlanta OB-GYN who works with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on abortion-related policies. Amanda’s case may well have fallen into one of these gray areas.

“What we found on the ground is that these exceptions often don’t work in the actual practice of medicine, and they create a lot of confusion and uncertainty,” she said. “And so we’re seeing a lot of the harms, both with the gestational age cutoff and the very confusing exceptions.”

John Trapp, president of the Nebraska Medical Association, expressed similar concerns. A fatal fetal anomaly exception could help physicians and patients make health care decisions, but only in a small number of cases, Trapp said while testifying before a legislative committee.

“There will continue to be very difficult challenges not addressed by this bill as Nebraska physicians try to provide care to patients with complex pregnancies.”

On Tuesday, a Flatwater Free Press reporter called Amanda, read her the state senator’s apology and asked for her response. 

Amanda said it was too late. 

“He’s still trying to take away the access and had me go through stuff that was way worse … so I don’t really care to hear his opinion,” she said.

By Sara Gentzler

Most recently, Sara was an enterprise reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, where she covered the ultra-dramatic 2022 gubernatorial primary race. Before that, as a state government reporter, she broke stories on Nebraska footing the bill (and refusing to admit it) for deploying state troopers to the southern border and its practice of inking millions in no-bid pandemic contracts with an out-of-state company. She graduated from Gretna High School and Creighton University and ultimately returned to Nebraska from Washington state, where she covered state government for The Olympian and three other newspapers. She and her husband, Alex, welcomed identical twin boys in June. They’re excited to introduce them to Omaha’s parks and music scene.

By Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Newsline in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice, voting rights, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. She hails from China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are.


With 60% approval of abortion right, why are there 33 senators so determined to put female lives at risk? The 33% yell the loudest. Someone should investigate how much property tax Pillen farms pays.



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