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As you probably have heard, Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed into law two new limitations on abortion in the state of Nebraska. The first requires doctors to screen women seeking abortions for mental or physical health factors that may impact the abortion before the procedure. The second places a ban on all abortions, except in cases of direct physical danger to the mother, after the 20th week of pregnancy.

The first limitation has drawn the usual opposition and complaints from abortion advocates and will most likely see a court challenge at some point. Yet the limited effectuality of such a vague law makes its actual impact minor at best.  The second limitation, however, or more accurately the argument for the second limitation, will have an enormous impact on the landscape of the abortion debate.

The new law, called the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Act,” was enacted on the argument that unborn children have the capacity to feel pain at 20 weeks and therefore should not be aborted. This is monumental for one important reason: it explicitly challenges the standards for restricting abortion access that were defined in Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade, much to the disgust of activists on both sides of the abortion argument, defined viability as the limiting factor in state legislation of abortion. States cannot restrict a woman’s abortion access before the unborn child has reached the point of viability, usually identified as 24 weeks.  After this point states can restrict access to abortion as they see fit, as long as there is no direct danger to the life or health of the mother.

The Nebraska law, however, subverts the viability standard of Roe v. Wade and replaces it with the new standard of pain perception. If an unborn child can feel pain, it should not be aborted. Many states have tried similar approaches before, but Nebraska was the first to succeed.  And now the nation must confront the legitimacy of both Nebraska’s reasoning for restricting abortion and the reasoning behind Roe v. Wade.

Although the new law is sure to be challenged in court and will most likely be overturned, it has accomplished something hugely important by opening this debate. It is forcing everyone in the United States to re-examine and question the logic supporting Roe v. Wade and all other limitations on abortion.

The vague concept of pain may not be the most legitimate standard for restricting access to abortion, but it at least forces everyone to finally ask, What is? Is viability a legitimate point at which to begin banning abortion? Is that when a life becomes a life? If an entity is sentient enough to experience pain, does that make it a life? But what if a being can feel pain but is still unable to reason, is it then a human life? What are the standards by which we measure the humanness of a being? What credence can we give to any standard used to define the beginning and the end of someone’s humanness? Are they all arbitrary? Does science truly provide us with any answers to these questions?

Abortion advocates are able to silence such questions by calling a baby a fetus and repeating the mantra of “choice” to drown out the complicated moral, legal, and scientific issues involved when a society begins to define the limits of humanity. Yet, these are the issues that everyone should be discussing and rationally debating.

In the end, the Nebraska law may not stand, but at least it has pushed the public into this debate, so that we finally questions how we are defining human life and what that indicates about us as a society.

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