Iowa Supreme Courts hears latest arguments over 2018 ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill

By: - April 11, 2023 3:10 pm

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday over an injunction blocking enforcement of the 2018 "fetal heartbeat” abortion ban. (Photo by ericsphotography/Getty Images)

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday as to whether the court should continue to prevent the state from enforcing the so-called “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban.

Five years ago, Iowa lawmakers approved a bill that seeks to ban most abortions after cardiac impulses can be detected in an embryo, which typically occurs about six weeks after conception. The law contains exemptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. In 2019, a district court judge issued an injunction preventing the state from enforcing the new law.

After the Iowa Supreme Court ruled last summer that the state constitution does not provide a fundamental right to an abortion, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gov. Kim Reynolds went to court to have the injunction lifted so the 2018 law could take effect.

In December 2022, District Court Judge Celene Gogerty ruled against the governor, allowing the injunction to remain in place.

In her ruling, Gogerty wrote that “the state has failed to show that there has been a substantial change in the law under the Iowa Constitution” that would merit revisiting the original ruling. “The ban on nearly all abortions under (the fetal-heartbeat bill) would be an undue burden and, therefore, the statute would still be unconstitutional and void,” Gogerty wrote.

Reynolds appealed that decision to the Iowa Supreme Court, resulting in Tuesday’s arguments.

A key element of the case now surrounds the manner in which the legality of the fetal-heartbeat law should be assessed.

Laws that impose an “undue burden” on others while serving no legitimate public interest can be invalidated. But laws that don’t deal with fundamental, constitutional rights can remain in place, even if they place a burden on others, as long as there’s a “rational basis” for their enactment.

Lawyers for the state are arguing that Gogerty erred by using the “undue burden” standard, and they say that in cases when there is no fundamental constitutional right at issue, the real test is whether the Iowa Legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law.

Representing the state during Tuesday’s oral arguments, Christopher Schandevel of the Alliance Defending Freedom emphasized that last year’s court rulings signaled there is no fundamental right of abortion in Iowa.

“So, yes, when there’s a fundamental right at stake, the court has applied some different type of analysis,” Schandevel told the justices on Tuesday. “But there is no fundamental right here. And when there is no fundamental right at stake, the test has to be ‘rational basis.’”

Schandevel told the justices the Iowa Legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law, which was the protection of the unborn.

Peter Im, staff attorney at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the justices the state’s case was flawed both procedurally and in substance.

“The state is asking this court to disregard the Iowa Constitution and its own procedural rules to revive a statute that was declared void over four years ago and has been enjoined ever since,” Im told the court.

“This appeal is not procedurally proper because there was no new, final order to appeal,” he said. “And on its merits, the state’s arguments failed for three reasons. First, the ban is void because it was unconstitutional when it was passed. Second, Iowa procedures do not permit the state’s motion. And third, there was no change in the law that would justify vacating the injunction.”

As to whether the injunction should remain in place in light of the more recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion, Im said allowing the state’s case to proceed “would open the floodgates” for lawsuits filed by anyone who is subject to any sort of court injunction.

Currently, with the injunction still in place, abortion remains legal in Iowa up the 20th week of pregnancy.

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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.