House panels advance constitutional amendments on abortion, gun rights

A subcommittee in the Iowa House debates a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion while online observers hold up protest signs. (Screen shot from Iowa Legislature's livestream)

Proposals to amend Iowa’s constitution to restrict state courts’ authority over abortion and firearms cases are advancing in the Iowa House.

In back-to-back meetings with limited debate, three-member subcommittees of the House Judiciary and House Public Safety committees each voted 2-1 to advance proposed constitutional amendments to the full committees for debate.

Neither proposal is new to the Legislature and both are aimed at what supporters consider “judicial overreach” in reviewing state laws on abortion and gun rights.

House Study Bill 41 would let Iowans vote on an amendment stating there is no right to abortion or requirement for public funding of abortions.

A dozen representatives of Iowa right-to-life organizations spoke in person in favor of the proposal Tuesday while several opponents held up signs supporting Planned Parenthood or opposing abortion restrictions in the virtual meeting.

Supporters of the amendment referred frequently to a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that struck down a law requiring a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. The ruling stated the Iowa Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion.

“I believe the people of Iowa and not unelected judges of the state Supreme Court should decide how Iowa will regulate abortion,” Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Iowans for Life, told lawmakers. “These radical judges took the rights away from all Iowans and thereby preventing common sense protections for women and children. What these judges did was even more extreme than Roe versus Wade.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, the subcommittee chairman, and several other supporters used identical phrasing in predicting that without the amendment, courts could eliminate restrictions on late-term abortions and require taxpayer funding for them.

“Most Iowans instinctively know that there’s a baby growing inside of a womb but now a handful of (un)elected judges have created a precedent in Iowa that could lead to making it legal to kill a baby up until birth and make Iowans pay for it,” Holt said.

Abortion rights advocates objected to the meeting’s format, which required people wanting to be heard on the legislation to appear before the subcommittee in person. Remote participation is limited to viewing and submission of written comments. The Senate allows the public to speak to lawmakers during virtual subcommittee meetings.

Planned Parenthood organized a virtual news conference to discuss their views on the legislation.

“Their shortened, 30-minute meeting provided one of the only opportunities for Iowans to offer input on the proposal. And while the public could submit written comments, they were forced to endanger their safety and go to the Capitol during a tumultuous and dangerous time in American history to give America to give in-person comments,” said Jamie Burch Elliott, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood North Central States.

Elliott also questioned the timing of the discussion amid a COVID-19 pandemic that to date has killed more than 4,300 Iowans.

“Politicians in Des Moines should be focused on addressing the state’s bungled response to the pandemic and social justice instead of wasting time trying to strip Iowans of their rights and access to health care,” she said.

The resolution passed the Iowa Senate last year but did not reach the House floor. It needs to pass both the House and Senate during the current, two-year general assembly as well as the next one that begins in January 2023 before it is eligible for the general-election ballot.

Gun rights amendment advances

House Study Bill 9 would not only replicate the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, but require that state courts would have to apply “strict scrutiny,” the highest standard of legal review, to laws that restrict firearm possession.

Opponents of the proposed amendment said they feared it would jeopardize existing gun safety regulations. “We think this strict scrutiny language puts current regulation in jeopardy, such as background check and permit requirements,” Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference said.

Subcommittee member Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, who opposes the amendment, also questioned the timing of the debate. “We saw our U.S. Capitol attacked by insurrectionists just less than two weeks ago. Tomorrow, people will be celebrating the inauguration of our next president but Washington DC has been essentially shut down due to the threat of violence,” she said.

Holt, who also chaired this subcommittee, and other supporters said it was freedom and liberty that were under assault. They argued the measure is needed to protect against erosion of the Second Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We need (the amendment) because it is profoundly apparent in 2021 that freedom and liberty are fragile, and under greater assault than at any time in our history,” he said.

The gun rights resolution is already halfway through the legislative process. It passed the last general assembly and needs approval by the House and Senate by the end of the 2022 session to be eligible for a public vote.