Reynolds launches two-pronged legal fight on abortion laws

By: - June 28, 2022 4:44 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State message Jan. 11, 2022, in the Iowa House chamber. Reynolds is now going to court in an effort to reinstate Iowa's ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. (Pool photo by Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register)

Gov. Kim Reynolds is going to court in an effort to reinstate Iowa’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Declaring that “now is the time for us to stand up and continue the fight to protect the unborn,” Reynolds said Tuesday she is launching a two-pronged legal effort to restrict abortions in Iowa.

She said she intends to urge the Iowa Supreme Court to re-decide the case in which the state’s proposed 24-hour waiting period for an abortion was argued, and will also ask that the courts lift an injunction that’s blocking the enactment of a 2018 law that effectively outlaws abortions after six weeks.

If those efforts are successful, Iowa will have one of the nation’s most restrictive laws on abortion.

Reynolds’ decision comes just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that there is no constitutional right to abortion, and less than two weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that the state constitution does not protect abortion as a fundamental right.

“The Supreme Court’s historic decision reaffirms that states have the right to protect the innocent and defenseless unborn — and now it’s time for our state to do just that,” Reynolds said in a written statement Tuesday. “As governor, I will do whatever it takes to defend the most important freedom there is: the right to life.”

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville denounced the Republican governor’s move.

“Iowa Republicans will not stop until they have completely banned abortion without exception,” Wahls said. “This is an incredibly dangerous action that threatens the health, safety, and future of Iowa women.”

Sheena Dooley, communications manager for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, noted that at six weeks, most pregnant people are unaware they are carrying a child, which means the governor’s efforts could effectively eliminate legalized abortion in Iowa.

“Abortion remains safe and legal in Iowa, and Iowans want to keep it that way,” Dooley said. “Gov. Reynolds wants to take us back decades in time by forcing pregnancy on Iowans, a grave violation of their human rights. Iowa is headed down a dangerous path where Gov. Reynolds will have more say over our reproductive health than we do.”

 Miller won’t represent the state

Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, said Tuesday he will not represent the state in the governor’s efforts to limit access to abortion.

“Our office is withdrawing from the case involving the 24-hour waiting period, or House File 594, for ethical reasons,” Miller said in a statement. “I have made many clear public statements supporting Roe v. Wade and the rationale that underlies it. Those statements would be inconsistent with what the state would argue in court.”

Miller noted that this decision was consistent with his disqualification in the litigation over the fetal-heartbeat case in 2018.

“In that case, I stated that I could not zealously assert the state’s position because of my core belief that the statute, if upheld, would undermine rights and protections for women,” Miller said. “In my nearly 40 years in office, I have declined to represent the state in only one other similar situation.”

With the attorney general’s office bowing out of the case, Reynolds is retaining the Alliance Defending Freedom and Iowa attorney Alan Ostergren, a former county prosecutor who now represents the Kirkwood Institute, a politically conservative organization.

Their legal work will entail no cost to Iowa taxpayers, Reynolds said.

Fetal-heartbeat law could take effect 

Reynolds signed Iowa’s fetal-heartbeat bill into law in 2018, but an immediate court challenge led to an injunction blocking the law from taking effect and an eventual ruling that it was unconstitutional.

Reynolds now wants to the court to lift the injunction and let the law take full effect.

Currently, abortions in Iowa are banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy, although exceptions are allowed to save the life of the mother. As written, the 2018 law would require doctors to check for signs of a fetal heartbeat when a woman seeks an abortion.

If a heartbeat is detected, the doctor would not be able to proceed with the abortion. Typically, a fetal heartbeat can be detected six weeks into a pregnancy.

The law includes an exception for cases in which the mother’s life is at risk; for cases in which an expected birth defect is determined to be “incompatible” with life; and for cases of rape and incest, assuming the crimes have been reported to law enforcement.

Lawsuit over ‘24-hour law’ to be revisited

In addition to litigating the fate of the 2018 fetal-heartbeat bill, Reynolds is launching a separate offensive aimed at the court decisions that grew out of legal challenges aimed at a 2020 law that sought to establish a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion.

It was that case that led to the Iowa Supreme Court’s June 17 decision in which the justices aid Iowa’s state constitution does not establish a fundamental right to an abortion.

In making that decision, the justices did not definitively state what standards should be applied to abortion restrictions under the Iowa Constitution. Instead, the court invited the parties to litigate that issue further.

Reynolds’ office said Tuesday that while the court’s decision was a “step in the right direction, it left more work to be done in Iowa’s courts to fully protect the life of the unborn.”

When the Iowa Supreme Court released its June 17 decision, Justice Edward Mansfield noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision – already a matter of public knowledge due to an earlier, unprecedented leak – might “alter the federal constitutional landscape” and provide “insights” on the issue that the Iowa Supreme Court might look to in the future.

Reynolds’ office says that with the U.S. Supreme Court having now acted, Iowa’s high court may “now re-decide” the case on the 24-hour waiting period.

The governor said she intends to file a request for a rehearing by Friday of this week.

As expected, Iowa’s GOP legislative leaders voiced support for the Republican governor’s actions.

“Since coming into the majority, Senate Republicans have led on the issue of life,” said Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny.  “I support the decision to put these laws back in front of the Court to protect life in Iowa.”

“For far too long, flawed Court rulings at the state and federal levels have blocked many of our attempts to listen to Iowans and expand pro-life protections,” said Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “Iowa House Republicans’ goal is to protect the lives of the unborn. That’s why I support the governor’s decision on these legal actions as the best path forward to protect innocent life.”

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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.