Vice President Kamala Harris cites Iowa’s role in legal challenges to abortion

By: - March 16, 2023 3:37 pm

Vice President Kamala Harris, second from left, holds a discussion on reproductive health care access in Iowa with Democratic leaders and health care providers at Grand View University in Des Moines on March 16, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Vice President Kamala Harris, in Des Moines on Thursday, said Iowa is “on the front lines” of the fight over abortion access.

Harris joined a roundtable discussion on reproductive rights with Democratic leaders, health care providers and community advocates at Grand View University in Des Moines.

It’s not just lawmakers taking action to strip Americans of abortion rights, Harris said.

“There are attorney generals around the country — including here — who are attempting to tell pharmacies, ‘Do not dispense abortion medication in the state,'” Harris said.

Republican Brenna Bird, Iowa’s newly elected attorney general, signed onto a letter with 19 other Republican AGs warning Walgreens it could face a multistate lawsuit if the pharmacy chain continues to sell abortion medication by mail. Harris said this letter and threat of lawsuit is an egregious example of government overreach, as abortion medication has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for more than two decades.

The vice president has held 40 events nationwide on abortion access in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022. The Iowa event comes as a federal judge in Texas considers a lawsuit alleging the FDA improperly approved mifepristone, a drug used in most abortion medications, and calling for removing or limiting medication using the substance in U.S. markets.

“A group of elected politicians are expecting to use the court of law to implement a political agenda that would undo the veracity and significance of the medical decision by the FDA about a medication,” Harris said. “… There is so much about this issue that really does attack very fundamental issues and principles. And the fundamental issue at play in that court case is our public health system as a whole.”

If the Texas court does overrule the FDA’s determination, the Biden administration will do whatever they can to protect access to health care, Harris said. But she said this decision could have implications beyond the issue of abortion. The FDA approves medicine from chemotherapy to asthma medication to insulin. If the judge decides to overturn an FDA approval, Harris said,  “imagine where that could lead.”

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, who moderated the event, said he was grateful that Harris was having this discussion in Iowa.

“While abortion remains safe, legal and accessible in Iowa today, we can see Republican politicians and their activist judges moving swiftly to reverse course and deny this essential freedom and autonomy to pregnant Iowa women and their families,” Wahls said.

Other states with a GOP governor and majority in the state legislature have passed full bans or further restrictions on abortion. But in the 2023 legislative session, Iowa Republicans have not moved to further restrict the medical procedure, despite the Iowa Supreme Court also ruling that abortion was not a protected right under the state constitution.

Instead, Gov. Kim Reynolds has focused her efforts on fighting in state courts to enforce laws passed in previous years. Iowa’s “fetal heartbeat” law, currently blocked by an injunction, would ban most abortions – with exemptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother – after six weeks of fetal development. She has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse this injunction and allow enforcement of the 2018 law.

While no further restrictions on the procedure have come up this session, the governor’s health care omnibus bill includes an increase in funding for the More Options for Maternal Support, or MOMS, program from $500,000 to $2 million. Wahls criticized this spending increase, which goes toward nonprofit organizations that promote alternatives to abortion.

Health care providers and reproductive rights advocates say these centers present themselves falsely as legitimate, licensed health care providers, and have been accused of misdiagnosing issues with a pregnancy that put the mother’s life at risk. Wahls said Iowans oppose the expansion of the MOMS program.

“That is wrong and strong majorities of Iowans made clear they oppose this,” Wahls said. “These looming restrictions threaten the health and safety of Iowans and they would limit our choices and narrow our opportunities. Iowa Republicans are making our state a less welcoming state.”

The vice president’s trip comes as Republican presidential candidates begin their time on the 2024 trail, criticizing Biden’s and Harris’ leadership. Former President Donald Trump campaigned in Davenport Monday.

After the Grand View round table discussion, Harris went to see her alma matter Howard University’s NCAA game against the University of Kansas at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines before departing on Air Force 2.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.