Shots - Health Blog
1:03 am
Wed April 18, 2012

Unusual Alliances Form In Nebraska's Prenatal Care Debate

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 8:39 am

In Republican-dominated Nebraska, government leaders often line up together, but lately a political tornado has ripped through this orderly scene.

A political showdown over taxpayer funding of prenatal care for illegal immigrants has produced some unusual political splits and alliances in the statehouse of the Cornhusker State.

"I am extraordinarily disappointed in your support of taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens," said Republican Gov. Dave Heineman as he read a letter he wrote to fellow Republican Mike Flood, speaker of Nebraska's officially nonpartisan Legislature.

Heineman was referring to a bill he subsequently vetoed that would restore publicly funded prenatal care for women in the country illegally. Until two years ago, Nebraska was one of about 15 states providing that benefit.

Nebraska dropped the coverage when the federal government said the state couldn't use Medicaid funds, though it offered to continue funding under another program. Heineman frames the issue as one of the benefits to illegal immigrants.

Flood, a leading abortion opponent, says pregnant illegal immigrants will ultimately give birth to babies who will be U.S. citizens. He says providing them with prenatal care is consistent with his opposition to abortion.

"If I'm going to stand up in the Legislature and protect babies at 20 weeks from abortion, and hordes of senators and citizens are going to stand behind me, and that's pro-life, then I'm going to be pro-life when it's tough, too," Flood said.

The issue has exposed a fault line between anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment and anti-abortion groups, but it's also brought together an unusual coalition. Among those supporting the bill is the politically influential Nebraska Right to Life organization.

"We don't want to distinguish that because ... of a baby's circumstances or in whose womb that baby resides that dictates whether that baby receives care or not," said Julie Schmit-Albin, the group's executive director.

Another supporter is the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, which advocates for immigration reform and access to universal health care. Jennifer Carter, the center's public policy director, says the immigrants are our "neighbors" and should be helped.

"They're in our communities and they're helping contribute to our communities," Carter said. "So we believe providing this kind of prenatal care coverage to their children is appropriate."

Still, Heineman, backed by what Republican Party polls say is a clear majority of voters, remains adamant in his opposition, though he calls himself strongly anti-abortion.

"Most Nebraskans and I agree, we support prenatal care, but in the case of illegal immigrants, it should be done by churches, private organizations, charities, private individuals — not the use of taxpayer funds," he said.

Supporters of the bill, on both sides of the abortion debate, cite their own polls in support and say the savings from avoiding intensive care for babies born without prenatal care would outweigh the costs of the program.

With the governor turning up the political heat, the question now is whether enough legislators will vote to override the veto. That vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

Copyright 2013 Nebraska Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.nprn.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Nebraska, there's a political showdown over taxpayer funding of prenatal care for illegal immigrants. The fight has divided the state in unusual ways as Fred Knapp of NET News reports.

FRED KNAPP, BYLINE: In this Republican-dominated state, government leaders often line up together like the endless rows of corn you see out the windows driving cross-country on Interstate 80. But lately, a political tornado's ripped through this orderly scene. Here's Republican Governor Dave Heineman reading a letter he wrote to a fellow Republican - Mike Flood, speaker of Nebraska's officially nonpartisan legislature.

GOVERNOR DAVE HEINEMAN: Dear Speaker Flood, I am extraordinarily disappointed with your support of taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens.

KNAPP: Heineman was referring to a bill he subsequently vetoed that would restore publically-funded prenatal care for women in the country illegally. Until two years ago, Nebraska was one of about 15 states providing that benefit. It dropped the coverage when the federal government said the state couldn't use Medicaid funds, although it offered to continue funding under another program.

Governor Heineman frames the issue as one of benefits to illegal immigrants. Speaker Flood, a leading abortion opponent, says the pregnant illegal immigrants will ultimately give birth to babies who will be U.S. citizens. He says providing them with prenatal care is consistent with his opposition to abortion.

MIKE FLOOD: If I'm going to stand up in the legislature and protect babies at 20 weeks from abortion, and hordes of senators and citizens are going to stand behind me, and that's pro-life, then I'm going to be pro-life when it's tough too.

KNAPP: The issue's exposed a fault line between anti-illegal immigrant sentiment and anti-abortion groups. But it's also brought together an unusual coalition. Among those supporting the bill is the politically influential Nebraska Right to Life organization. Julie Schmit-Albin is the group's executive director.

JULIE SCHMIT-ALBIN: We don't want to distinguish that because of a baby's circumstances or in whose womb that baby resides that dictates whether that baby receives care or not.

KNAPP: Another supporter is the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, which advocates for immigration reform and access to universal health care. Jennifer Carter is the center's public policy director.

JENNIFER CARTER: These moms, they're members of our neighbors, they are our coworkers in cases. They're in our communities and they're helping contribute to our communities, and so we believe that providing this kind of prenatal care coverage to their children is appropriate.

KNAPP: Still, Governor Heineman, backed by what Republican Party polls say is a clear majority of voters, remains adamantly opposed, even though he calls himself strongly pro-life.

HEINEMAN: Most Nebraskans, and I agree, we support prenatal care. But in the case of illegal immigrants, it should be done by churches, private organizations, charities, private individuals - not the use of taxpayer funds.

KNAPP: Supporters of the bill, on both sides of the abortion debate, cite their own polls in support, and say the savings from avoiding intensive care for babies born without prenatal care would outweigh the costs of the program.

With the governor turning up the political heat, the question now is whether enough legislators will vote to override the veto. That vote is scheduled for later today.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Knapp in Lincoln, Nebraska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.