If Roe is overturned, what happens next for Iowa abortion laws?

By: - December 2, 2021 4:53 pm

A 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling still protects abortion rights in the state. (Photo courtesy of State Library of Iowa)

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving states with more freedom to restrict abortions. Several states have already passed “trigger laws” that would immediately outlaw abortion upon the court’s decision.

But in Iowa, a major legal hurdle would remain in place: an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that says the state constitution protects a right to abortion.

“The way things are right now, nothing would happen immediately in Iowa, because (abortion) is a protected right under the state constitution,” said Sheena Dooley, communications manager for Planned Parenthood North Central States.

In 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. In that decision, they found that Iowa’s constitution provides women the fundamental right to an abortion.

That decision has been used to overturn several abortion restrictions passed since, including a “fetal heartbeat” law that would have prohibited most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. 

Even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe, that 2018 ruling will apply for Iowa laws. But there are two potential challenges to that 2018 decision.

The first is another Iowa Supreme Court case in which justices will consider the legality of a 2020 law that would require 24-hour waiting period for abortions. An Iowa judge permanently blocked enforcement of that law this summer, but the state appealed the ruling.

If the Iowa Supreme Court decides that a waiting period is constitutional, it may reverse the 2018 conclusion that Iowa recognizes a fundamental right to an abortion.

Iowa Republicans are also working on a legislative option to undo the decision. They proposed a constitutional amendment that would make explicit that Iowa “does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.”

There are several more steps before that could become law, however: Lawmakers in the next General Assembly, beginning in 2023, would need to approve the amendment again. Then, Iowa voters would have to approve the change in a general election.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found in September that 57% of Iowans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

What comes next?

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates said Thursday they remain focused on outreach and education while they wait for court decisions and the progression of the constitutional amendment.

Kristi Judkins, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said she and other pro-life groups don’t assume an overturn of Roe is “a sure thing.”

“We’re proceeding as if the Supreme Court case isn’t really happening … We feel like we need to make sure enough Iowans understand what the proposed amendment means,” she said.

But Judkins acknowledged there was optimism in pro-life circles about the Supreme Court case and other recent wins, like a restrictive Texas abortion law that was allowed to remain in place.

“We want to remain hopeful and optimistic, and I feel like I see a tide turning,” she said.

Dooley said Planned Parenthood was working on new campaigns to engage people, especially those in marginalized communities who would feel the brunt of abortion restrictions.

“We know that people who have the means will be able to travel out of state and get a safe, legal abortion somewhere else,” Dooley said. “It’s really a ban on abortion for people of low income.”

Iowa lawmakers may also introduce new restrictions on abortion in the upcoming legislative session, which begins next month.

“If anything, I believe Republicans would be emboldened by the potential for this Supreme Court case going their way,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said.

Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, also anticipated that efforts to pass a constitutional amendment would proceed, despite the pending court cases.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, and Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, led the passage of the constitutional amendment in the 2021 session. They did not respond to requests for comment.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.