The dome of the Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Iowa Republican leaders said Friday they are looking at next steps on restricting abortions after the Iowa Supreme Court’s split decision that continues to block the state’s “fetal heartbeat” law.
With a 3-3 split and Justice Dana Oxley recusing herself, the Supreme Court upheld a district judge’s 2022 ruling that declined to lift the injunction on enforcing the 2018 law that bans most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said calling the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision “a disappointment is an understatement.”
“Not only does it disregard Iowa voters who elected representatives willing to stand up for the rights of unborn children, but it has sided with a single judge in a single county who struck down Iowa’s legislation based on principles that now have been flat-out rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Reynolds said in a statement. “There is no fundamental right to abortion and any law restricting it should be reviewed on a rational basis standard – a fact acknowledged today by three of the justices. Still, without an affirmative decision, there is no justice for the unborn.”
The governor said she and Republican Statehouse leaders are “reviewing our options” in moving forward.
The details of that future path remain unknown. Reynolds could call the Legislature back for a special session on abortion, for example, or wait for the next regular session in January. Lawmakers could attempt to recreate the 2018 legislation or craft something new.
House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver both issued statements saying they plan to work through the Legislature to advance legislation restricting abortion in the future.
“We feel strongly that the Heartbeat Bill is a good piece of legislation that would save the innocent lives of unborn children,” Grassley said in a statement. “Going forward we will work together to pass legislation that will protect life, support new mothers, and promote strong families in Iowa.”
The decision comes following major shifts in abortion legal protections – in 2022, both the Iowa and U.S. Supreme Courts ruled there was no constitutional right to an abortion. In the aftermath, Reynolds decided to work through the judicial system to enforce existing abortion laws over advocating for new measures.
Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit on Iowa’s 24-hour waiting period law for abortions, with Iowa abortion providers implementing the procedure, but continued their challenge against the fetal heartbeat law.
Abortion access advocates celebrated the Friday decision. Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said the group was “overjoyed and relieved” by the court’s order, saying the district court rightly rejected the state’s attempts to ban abortion. Austen said the law was unconstitutional and dangerous, and that the preservation of the injunction preserves Iowans’ freedom, health and safety.
“Evidence in the case showed that the six-week ban would block more than 98 percent of abortions in our state,” Austen said. “Even the supposed exceptions it had for rape, incest, and the life of the woman were poorly written and extremely narrow, such that they would fail to protect people in those extremely difficult circumstances.”
Francine Thompson, executive director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, an Iowa City not-for-profit independent organization providing abortions and other family planning services, said the decision is a positive sign for the future of reproductive health care access in Iowa.
“The ruling today helps to safeguard the rights of individuals to make decisions about their own bodies and reproductive futures,” Thompson said. “The result protects reproductive freedom and is a significant step forward in protecting the health and well- being of those seeking comprehensive healthcare services in Iowa.”
But others, like the Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Chris Schandevel, say the decision has not killed the six-week abortion ban from becoming Iowa law. Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative non-profit legal organization, represented Reynolds in the case challenging the injunction of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law.
“Even the three justices who voted against Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law agreed that the same law, passed again today, might finally be allowed to take effect,” Schandevel said. “It is time for the Iowa Legislature to act — once again — to protect life. The legislature should redouble its life-saving efforts to enshrine into law further protections for unborn children.”
In the Friday decision, Iowa Justice Thomas D. Waterman wrote that a measure similar to the 2018 law could take effect following the decisions overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, but that “uncertainty exists about whether a fetal-heartbeat bill would be passed today.”
Waterman also wrote the six-week ban remains unconstitutional under the “undue burden standard,” which remains the current governing standard as of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, in assessing whether laws are overly restrictive of a woman’s ability to make decisions regarding their health and pregnancy.
“The law as of today has not changed in a way that removes the ‘constitutional defect’ in the fetal-heartbeat bill,” Waterman wrote.
Abortion legislation did not advance in the 2023 legislative session, though Reynolds signed a law providing more funding for the More Options for Maternal Support program that gives funding to organizations encouraging alternatives to abortion. With a majority in the Iowa House and supermajority in the Iowa Senate, it’s possible that Republican leaders could rally their caucuses to support legislation restricting abortion could advance through both chambers.
Iowa Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, said the fight is not over in defending abortion rights in Iowa. She asked Iowans to call legislators and urge them to support reproductive health care access.
“While Iowa’s courts have stood up for our rights based on the state constitution, a small group of extreme, anti-choice Republican politicians are still seeking to change both the courts and the constitution,” Trone Garriott said in a statement. “With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, our rights are at risk. We fully expect a new attack on reproductive rights — perhaps from Gov. Reynolds calling an unprecedented special session in the next few months.”
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