Gov. Reynolds won’t ask lawmakers to outlaw abortion yet, will try to get the courts to do that

The Iowa Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines, 2019. — photo by Paul Robert Burley, cropped and colorized

Gov. Kim Reynolds said on Wednesday she’s waiting until state courts decide whether to revive a never-enforced 2018 law banning almost all abortions in Iowa, before she’ll announce if there will be a special session of the Iowa Legislature this year to further restrict reproductive rights.

The so-called “fetal heartbeat bill” was struck down as unconstitutional by a Polk County District Court judge in January 2019. The bill would have banned abortion after cardiac activity can be detected — typically six weeks into a pregnancy, before many people realize they are pregnant. “Heartbeat” is a misleading term for this activity, doctors say, since the fetal heart doesn’t fully form until typically the 10th week of pregnancy; the six-week cardiac activity is more a flutter of electrical activity.

A temporary injunction was issued shortly after Reynolds signed the bill into law in May 2018, stopping it from going into effect. Eight months later, Judge Michael Huppert issued a summary judgment in favor of the Emma Goldman Clinic, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Dr. Jill Meadows, who had sued the state, claiming the fetal heartbeat law violated the rights guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution.

Judge Huppert agreed, citing an Iowa Supreme Court ruling from 2018 that established the right to choose an abortion as a fundamental right protected by the Iowa 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 majority decision in that 2018 case. “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.”

A demonstrator holds a sign referencing the Iowa state motto during a pro-choice rally on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

After Judge Huppert issued his summary judgment on Jan. 22, 2019, Reynolds announced she would not be appealing the court’s decision. On Tuesday, a written statement from the governor’s office said Reynolds “will request that the Iowa courts lift the injunction against enforcement of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law.”

Under current Iowa law, abortions are allowed until 20 weeks into a pregnancy, and after that if it is necessary to save the life of a patient.

“We have the heartbeat bill on the books, and so let’s lift the injunction and let’s make that, you know, the law,” Reynolds said, speaking to reporters following an event in Wright County. “So, we’re going to start with that.”

The governor did not explain, either in Wright County or in her written statement, how she is going to start her effort to get the permanent injunction lifted. Iowa court procedure allows 30 days to appeal a decision. As of Thursday, it had been 1,255 days since Judge Huppert issued the permanent injunction.

Reynolds is moving in a more timely fashion in the second part of the legal strategy to ban abortion she announced on Tuesday. According to her office, before the end of day on Friday, she will file a request with the Iowa Supreme Court for a rehearing of its ruling in the case challenging the 2020 law creating a mandatory 24-hour waiting period before an abortion.

The court issued its decision in that case on June 17. It was a sweeping ruling with four justices voting to discard precedent, overrule the 2018 decision, and declare there is “no fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa’s Constitution.”

As Chief Justice Susan Christensen pointed out in her dissent, the only substantial change since the 2018 decision is who is on the court. Three justices who participated in the earlier decision have since retired, and Cady died.

Even though the court declared there is no fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa and lifted a lower court injunction stopping enforcement of the 24-hour waiting period, it did not decide if the waiting period law is constitutional. Instead, it sent the case back to the district court, with instructions to use the “undue burden standard” to determine if the waiting period violates the rights of Iowans under the state constitution.

The undue burden standard was created by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In that case, the high court reconfirmed the constitutionally protected right to an abortion established 19 years earlier in Roe v. Wade, but said states can regulate abortion provided those regulations do not create a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

One week after the Iowa Supreme Court overturned its 2018 decision on abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, Casey and 20 other cases that relied on those decision, and declared the U.S. Constitution does not protect the right to choose an abortion.

According to the statement issued on Tuesday, it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on June 24 that motivated the governor to request a rehearing on the 24-hour waiting period by the Iowa Supreme Court, and the lifting of the injunction against the fetal heartbeat law by unspecified “Iowa courts.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling has no immediate impact on either case, since both involve whether laws in question violate the Iowa Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution, and it also has no impact on the Iowa Supreme Court’s instruction to the district court judge to use the undue burden standard in assessing the 24-hour waiting period. But Reynolds will ask the Iowa justices to discard the undue burden standard, since Casey has been overturned.

A woman holds up a sign at the Bans Off Our Bodies protest on May 14, 2022, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The governor needs the Iowa Supreme Court to discard the undue burden standard in order for the injunction against the fetal heartbeat law to be lifted. There is no way a court would decide it does not create a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

In addition to outlawing most abortions before many people would suspect they are pregnant, the law only contains very narrow exceptions.

A person who has been 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 being sexually abused to at least one of the same set of authorities within 140 days of becoming pregnant. There is also an exception to allow pregnancies to save the life of the patient.

There is a more direct route to imposing further restrictions on abortion available to the governor. She could immediately call the Iowa Legislature into special session to pass new laws. Both Iowa Senate Majority Jack Whitver and Pat Grassley, the speaker of the Iowa House, joined Reynolds in celebrating the Dobbs decision in the written statement issued Tuesday. Both also said they are ready to take action to increase restrictions on reproductive choices in Iowa.

Reynolds was asked about the possibility of a special session on Wednesday.

“No,” the governor said. “No, right now that wouldn’t do any good to call a special session.” She then went on to say she wanted decisions from the courts, “and then we’ll reassess after that point.”

It’s not clear what Reynolds meant by “that wouldn’t do any good.” The most obvious problem a special session would raise involves this November’s election. According to an Iowa Poll conducted last year, 57 percent of Iowans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A special session to pass a new version of the fetal heartbeat bill, while pleasing to much of Reynolds’ base of voters, would force the governor and other Republicans to act on their unpopular beliefs while they are running for reelection.

Reynolds, Whitver and Grassley will all be on the ballot in November.

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