Gov. Kim Reynolds announces plans to severely restrict abortion in Iowa

Surrounded by Iowa school children, Gov. Kim Reynolds signs into law HF 2416, a bill banning transgender girls from girls teams in all Iowa schools, on March 3, 2022. — Office of the Governor

Four days after the U.S. Supreme Court discarded half a century of established legal precedent to end constitutional protection for the right to an abortion, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced she’s taking action to almost completely ban abortion in Iowa.

“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 issued by the governor’s office. “As governor, I will do whatever it takes to defend the most important freedom there is: the right to life.”

The governor could attempt to enact new abortion restrictions by calling a special session of the Iowa Legislature, and asking her fellow Republicans to pass new laws. But a special session would open Reynolds and legislative leaders to vocal criticism from Democratic lawmakers, which might present a political problem in an election year, since according to a 2021 Iowa Poll, 57 percent of Iowans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Instead, Reynolds is turning to the courts.

“Gov. Reynolds will urge the Iowa Supreme Court to rehear Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds (known as PPH IV) in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs [overturning Roe],” according to the statement. Also, “Gov. Reynolds will request that the Iowa courts lift the injunction against enforcement of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law.”

The Iowa Supreme Court issued its ruling in PPH IV on June 17, one week before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs. The case involved a law passed in 2020 that created a mandatory 24-hour waiting period before abortions in Iowa. A district court issued a permanent injunction against the waiting-period law, citing a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision that declared the Iowa Constitution provided stronger protection for the right to an abortion than the U.S. Constitution.

“Autonomy and dominion over one’s body go to the very heart of what it means to be free,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the 2018 decision. “At stake in this case is the right to shape, for oneself, without unwarranted governmental intrusion, one’s own identity, destiny, and place in the world. Nothing could be more fundamental to the notion of liberty.”

But since that decision, three members of the court retired, and Chief Justice Cady died unexpectedly in November 2019.

Abortion rights advocates march in Iowa City on Friday, June 24, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Writing for a fragmented majority of four justices in PPH IV, Justice Edward Mansfield went beyond deciding if a 24-hour waiting period was constitutional, and like the Republican-appointed majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, discarded precedent and issued a sweeping ruling against abortion.

Mansfield flatly rejected “the proposition that there is a fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa’s Constitution,” and overturned the district court injunction, allowing the law to take effect. The majority did not, however, rule on whether a 24-hour waiting period violates an Iowan’s rights under the state constitution. Instead, the case was sent back to the district court with instructions for the judge to use the “undue burden standard” to determine if the law is consistent with the constitution.

That standard was created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992. In its decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court ruled that although states can regulate abortion, those regulations cannot create a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

Casey was one of the cases the Supreme Court explicitly overturned on Friday. That decision has no immediate impact on the Iowa Supreme Court’s instructions to the district court in PPH IV, but in his decision Mansfield did leave open the possibility of eliminating the undue burden standard for abortion restrictions in Iowa if the Supreme Court overturned Casey.

The governor needs the Iowa Supreme Court to abandon the undue burden standard, not to uphold the 24-hour waiting period, but to accomplish her second stated goal: the lifting of the permanent injunction against the so-called fetal heartbeat law.

That law was passed with only Republican votes in 2018. It banned almost all abortions after the heartbeat of a fetus can be detected, which is typically six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant. It was understood to be blatantly unconstitutional when it passed, but that was appealing to the Republicans who voted for it. They hoped the bill would be challenged in federal court, and after it was struck down, the Supreme Court would hear the appeal and use the case to overturn Roe.

“This law, if signed, I believe could very well be the very bill that overturns Roe v. Wade,” Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, said at the time.

That didn’t happen, because when the ACLU of Iowa challenged the law, it filed the lawsuit in state court, not federal court.

A district court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the law shortly after Reynolds signed it in May 2018. In January 2019, the judge replaced the temporary injunction with a permanent injunction, preventing the law from ever going into effect.

Lisa Heinemen of Emma Goldman Clinic addresses the crowd on the Pentacrest protesting Iowa’s so-called fetal heartbeat law. Saturday, May 5, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The fetal heartbeat law would never pass an undue burden test. In addition to banning abortions before many women even know they are pregnant, it only contains very narrow exceptions for cases of rape and incest.

A woman who is raped must report the rape “to a law enforcement agency, a public or private health agency or a family physician within 45 days,” to be allowed to have an abortion after six weeks. A victim of incest must report her sexual abuse to at least one of the same set of authorities within 140 days.

Assuming the governor is serious about having the permanent injunction lifted — and not just trying to appeal to anti-abortion voters during her reelection campaign, while not possibly antagonizing the majority of voters by taking more direct action against reproductive rights — the Iowa Supreme Court will have to first decide it is acceptable for laws to create “substantial obstacle[s] in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

According to the statement issued on Tuesday, the Reynolds administration will file its motion for the Iowa Supreme Court to reconsider PPH IV “before Friday.” The statement does not say when the governor intends to ask the district court to lift the injunction on the fetal heartbeat law.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office will not be representing the Reynolds administration in these legal actions.

“I have made many clear public statements supporting Roe v. Wade and the rationale that underlies it,” Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement on Tuesday. “Those statements would be inconsistent with what the state would argue in court. I support the undue burden standard that the U.S. Supreme Court set forth in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.”

Miller said it would be unethical of him to represent the administration in asking the Iowa Supreme Court to eliminate the undue burden test, because he believes doing so “would have a detrimental impact on women’s reproductive rights, health care, and our society.”

According to the statement from the governor’s office, “Gov. Reynolds is retaining Alliance Defending Freedom and Iowa attorney Alan Ostergren, President and Chief Counsel of the Kirkwood Institute, to represent the State at no cost to Iowa taxpayers.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an Arizona-based conservative Christian legal advocacy group, probably best known for opposing LGBTQ rights, as well as access to contraception and abortion. Ostergren is a well-known Iowa attorney, who frequently represents Republicans in cases of political significance.

In 2020, Ostergren represented the Iowa Republican Party and the Trump campaign in election-related cases. Earlier this year, he was the attorney for two Republican activists who attempted to have Abby Finkenauer removed from the Democratic primary ballot.

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