Iowa abortion rights activists brace for new restrictions in wake of district court ruling

By: - December 13, 2022 5:00 pm

It could be next fall before the Iowa Supreme Court considers the governor's request to reinstate a 2018 law restricting abortions, reproductive rights advocates say. (Photo by ericsphotography/Getty Images)

Reproductive rights advocates are celebrating the Iowa district court decision ruling on the “fetal heartbeat” law, but Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said she is holding out for the Iowa Supreme Court’s final decision.

Speakers with Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Iowa said Tuesday the court decision protects safe, legal abortion in Iowa “for now.” A district judge declined the governor’s request to lift an injunction that has kept the 2018 abortion law from taking effect for nearly four years.

The so-called “fetal heartbeat” law would ban most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, after roughly six weeks of gestation. The bill includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the pregnant patient.

If the case moves forward on a normal schedule, the injunction request will not be before the Iowa Supreme Court until September 2023, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said during a news conference, though the court could choose to hear arguments earlier.

Reynolds brought the law back to the courts this summer after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in June the state constitution did not guarantee a right to abortion. The governor said Monday she would immediately appeal the district court’s decision to keep the injunction in place and that she would continue to “fight for the sanctity of life and for the unborn.”

“I’m very disappointed in the ruling filed today by the district court, but regardless of the outcome, this case was always going to the Iowa Supreme Court,” Reynolds said in a statement Monday.

District Judge Celene Gogerty said in her ruling that she does not have the authority to dissolve the permanent injunction, but also that there has not been a substantial enough change to Iowa law to warrant its dissolution if she were able to do so. While the state Supreme Court’s decision this summer removed the “strict scrutiny” test for Iowa abortion laws, Gogerty said that the “undue burden” standard still applies.

The June decision reversed a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling which found that Iowa’s constitution guaranteed a fundamental right to abortion. The court did not overturn a 2015 ruling that abortion laws should be held to the “undue burden” standard, which evaluates whether the law places significant burdens or restrictions on abortion access before the fetus is considered viable outside the womb.

While the 2015 precedent stands, the district judge wrote in her decision that it’s unclear which judicial standard should be applied to Iowa abortion laws going forward, as the Supreme Court did not specify what standard should replace “strict scrutiny” in their June decision.

Austen said the enjoined abortion law is not the “appropriate vehicle” for making arguments on the new legal standards for abortion laws under the state constitution. She said the ACLU and Planned Parenthood would argue that lawmakers would need to pass a new law and defend it in court to avoid the legal barriers to trying to reinstate the old law.

“If the Legislature were to try to repass this law … that would eliminate the procedural hurdles that they face in trying to go about things the way that they have, with these really unprecedented legal maneuvers to try to unblock an older law, which was permanently enjoined,” she said. “So to the extent that they want to try to litigate the standard, they would need to have a new law that was challenged in order to do that.”

Reynolds and Iowa’s Republican legislative leaders have remained tight-lipped on whether new abortion legislation will be on the agenda in 2023. The governor repeated during her reelection campaign that she was committed on working through the courts to implement abortion laws on the books.

Mazie Stilwell, director of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said she would ask state legislators to keep in mind that polling shows Iowans are not in favor of further abortion restrictions. An October Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found 60% of Iowans said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Stilwell also pointed to the backlash against abortion restrictions in other states following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Of course, we don’t have control over the decisions that they may make in session,” she said. “But just to say, they would be well-served to consider the will of Iowans before acting to take away our rights.”

Democratic House Leader Jennifer Konfrst and state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott praised the district court decision, while committing to continue to fight against abortion restrictions in the Iowa legislature.

“While this is a positive development that will preserve Iowans’ basic rights in the near term, we all know where this is headed: Republicans want to ban abortion — at six weeks or altogether if they can,” Trone Garriott said in a statement “Gov. Reynolds and Iowa Republicans are trying to force government control over this deeply personal and private decision, putting lives at risk. That was true before today’s ruling and remains true now.”

Abortion remains legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Stilwell said since the Supreme Court decisions, Planned Parenthood North Central States have seen a 13% increase in patients coming from out-of-region states to receive care, as well as a 40% increase in second trimester abortions.

“Patients have to wait longer and travel further for abortions and that has an immense impact on the patients that we serve,” she said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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