Governor’s temporary abortion ban triggers lawsuit

By: - March 30, 2020 12:14 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference March 25, 2020, about the state’s COVID-19 response. (Pool photo by Olivia Sun/Des Moines Register)

The ACLU of Iowa, along with Planned Parenthood and the Emma Goldman Clinic, are suing Gov. Kim Reynolds and other state officials for blocking access to surgical abortion services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit alleges Reynolds’ action “flagrantly defies clear and binding constitutional precedent recognizing that patients have a protected liberty interest in terminating an unwanted pregnancy.”

In a written statement, the ACLU of Iowa said that “while health care providers across Iowa are working tirelessly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and care for patients suffering from COVID-19, Gov. Reynolds is focused on advancing her political agenda and interfering in medical decisions that should be left to patients and their doctors.”

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Johnson County District Court, alleges the March 26 Proclamation of Disaster Emergency, as interpreted by Reynolds, effectively bans abortion in Iowa. It seeks an emergency temporary injunction preventing the state from enforcing that element of the proclamation, as well as a declaratory judgment stating Reynolds’ interpretation violates the Iowa Constitution.

The governor’s proclamation bans “nonessential” surgeries and procedures and defines them as something “that can be delayed without undue risk to the current or future health of a patient, considering all appropriate factors including, but not limited to any: (1) threat to the patient’s life if the surgery or procedure is not performed; (2) threat of permanent dysfunction of an extremity or organ system; (3) risk of metastasis or progression of staging; and (4) risk of rapidly worsening to severe symptoms.”

The day after the proclamation was announced, Reynolds said non-essential medical procedures includes “all surgical abortions.” The ACLU alleges that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology agree that ​abortion is “an essential, time-sensitive procedure​.”

Reynolds defended the abortion ban on Sunday, stating her decision was based on the need to preserve personal protective equipment, or PPEs, such as face masks and shields, that have been in short supply.

“The decisions that I have made have been made in the vein of really helping us strategically use our PPE stockpile that we have, that has been an issue from the very beginning of this,” she said.

Governor’s spokeman Pat Garrett issued a statement Monday responding to the lawsuit: “Governor Reynolds is focused on protecting Iowans from an unprecedented public health disaster, and she suspended all elective surgeries and procedures to preserve Iowa’s health care resources. As the governor has said over and over, Iowans are in this together. We will be working in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office to defend the actions she’s taken.”

The lawsuit alleges abortion is a “straightforward outpatient procedure requiring little PPE. By contrast, forcing women to continue their pregnancies will only force them to have more encounters with an already overtaxed medical system, including encounters with a hospital system that is in crisis. All of these encounters could require more PPE, not less, than an abortion would have required.”

In a written statement, Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said “the state’s singling out of abortion in this manner during the public health crisis is profoundly harmful to Iowa women, and can’t be justified from a public health perspective.”

She noted the governor’s actions follow “the state’s numerous prior efforts to ban abortion in Iowa and make abortion more difficult and costly to obtain, all of which, like this decision, have been completely unjustified medically and have been blocked by the courts as unconstitutional.”

“To choose this moment — while we are in a global pandemic — to take on a political fight is not only misguided, it’s dangerous,” said Sarah Stoesz,​ ​ president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the North Central States. “​As a trusted member of Iowa’s health care community since 1934, Planned Parenthood is deeply committed to protecting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. We put the health of our patients and communities at the forefront every single day.”

The state of Iowa has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.