Iowa Supreme Court stays new anti-abortion rules, but access to services remains a problem

Sign supporting the right to choose at the Women’s March in Des Moines, Jan. 21, 2017 — photo by Mei-ling Shaw

Iowa won’t be immediately joining the 27 states that impose a waiting period on women seeking an abortion. Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an order temporarily staying enforcement of a 72-hour waiting period that was among the new restrictions on abortion signed into law by Gov. Brandstad in May.

But that decision doesn’t meant exercising the right to choose isn’t already a challenge in Iowa.

“Even without the 72 hour waiting period, there are barriers of proximity and cost, which affect rural and low-income Iowans disproportionately,” Jessica Smith told Little Village.

Smith is a board member of the Iowa Access Abortion Fund, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that makes payments directly to clinics to partially cover costs incurred by women who would otherwise be unable to afford, or have great difficulty affording, services.

“Many Iowans have to travel hours to be able to access services,” Smith said. That was true even before another bill signed in May by Gov. Branstad cut off funding to clinics that provide abortion services. That funding cut will cause the state to lose approximately $3 million in federal healthcare funds.

Following the funding cut, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland closed clinics in Sioux City, Burlington, Keokuk—which provided health care and contraceptives to approximately 80 percent of the women in those areas, according to a Planned Parenthood spokesperson—as well as its clinic in the Quad Cities. Even before those closures, the Iowa Section of the American College/Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported that 66 of the state’s 99 counties had no ob/gyn doctors.

“Having to travel to have access to services imposes burdens beyond just the cost,” Smith explained. “You have to arrange for time off work, which can be difficult. This is a private medical decision, and there’s still a lot of social stigma around it, even though it’s legal. Some people don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their closest friends, let alone discussing it with their employer.”

“It’s also difficult to find childcare, and statistics show the majority of individuals seeking an abortion already have children. They’re making this decision for their families, for a variety of reasons — it could be they can’t afford another child, the situation with their partner, issues of their health or other private reasons.”

A mandatory waiting period will only increase the burdens on Iowans, Smith said. The bill containing the waiting period passed by a party line vote earlier this year (every Democrat in the legislature voted against it), and it requires women to have an ultrasound and then wait at least 72 hours after the ultrasound before an abortion can be performed.

There is no medical reason for compelling everyone seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound, or to delay a procedure for three days. In May, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a stay on the waiting period and ultrasound provision, until a court could decide if they impose “an undue burden” on individuals seeking to exercise their rights. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states may impose restrictions on abortions, as long those restriction don’t unduly burden an individual. The high court did not offer a clear definition of “undue.”

Earlier this month, a district court judge in Polk County overturned the stay issued in May. Judge Jeffrey Farrell conceded the requirement “is arguably the strictest mandatory waiting period law in the country,” but decided it did not constitute an undue burden. According to Farrell, even if there is no medical reason for requiring an ultrasound or a waiting period, the state is still allowed to do so, because it “supports the state’s purpose to promote childbirth.” In his decision, Farrell wrote that “the legislative purpose [of the bill is] to allow women to take more time before making a final decision.”

On Oct. 24, the state Supreme Court overturned Farrell’s ruling, and restored the stay.

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Smith said she believes the waiting period and the ultrasound requirement will eventually be found unconstitutional, but said it is important to address access problems beyond this issue.

“At Iowa Abortion Access Fund, we see individuals who have to reschedule their appointments time and again, because of difficulties getting enough money to travel or making other necessary arrangements. When you have these barriers of proximity and cost, it can turn your constitutional right into a right in name only.”