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Iowa House Republicans push through an amendment to add anti-abortion language to the Iowa Constitution


Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Shortly after 9 on Wednesday night, the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment to eliminate the existing protection for abortion rights in Iowa. The vote was 55-44, with three Republicans — Jane Bloomingdale of Northwood, Lee Hein of Monticello and David Maxwell of Gibson — joining all the chamber’s Democrats in opposing the amendment.

House Joint Resolution 5 would add the following language to the Iowa Constitution: “To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the state of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.”

Remarkably, Rep. Steven Holt, the only Republican to speak during the floor debate on Wednesday night, claimed the amendment is not really about abortion.

“This is not about outlawing abortion but rather about helping to protect reasonable laws already on the books that are endangered by the Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds decision,” Holt, who represents the Dennison area in the House, said.

In the 2018 case, Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a law signed by Gov. Terry Branstad that required a 72-hour waiting period before a woman could access abortion services. The court ruled 5-2 the law violated the Iowa Constitution.

The majority opinion, authored by then-Chief Justice Mark Cady, found that the state constitution provides stronger protection for a woman’s right to make reproductive choices than the U.S. Constitution does, and any law touching on that right must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest of the state.”

(Cady died in November 2019. The current chief justice, Susan Christensen, is a Reynolds appointee.)

“This amendment is needed to respond to the judicial overreach of the Iowa Supreme Court,” Holt said during the floor debate on the amendment. “The Legislature makes laws, the court interprets laws.”

This is not the first time Holt has claimed the Iowa Supreme Court recognizing a basic right of Iowans is “judicial overreach.” Holt has also strongly opposed the 2009 decision in Varnum v. Brien, which recognized the right of same-sex couple to be married in Iowa. Holt has also pushed in previous legislative sessions for a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision.

In her 2020 Condition of the State address, Gov. Kim Reynolds called passage of an amendment to add anti-abortion language to the Iowa Constitution one of her top priorities.

“We must protect life by making clear, through an amendment, that our constitution does not grant a right to an abortion,” Reynolds said. “It’s time, and unfortunately it’s necessary.”

The Iowa Senate passed an anti-abortion amendment in 2020, but the House did not take up the amendment during the pandemic-shortened legislative session. The Senate is currently working on its own version of the amendment.

Democrats repeatedly pointed out on Wednesday night that without the protection for women’s reproductive choices the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized, the Republicans in the Iowa Legislature will continue to pass bills to that restrict reproductive medical services in ways that make it impossible for many women to access them.

“Right now the general assembly knows that a total ban on abortion would violate our state Constitution, so they don’t do it,” Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, said. “But if HJR 5 is ratified, all bets are off.”

“Eliminating the constitutional right to abortion won’t stop abortions,” Rep. Christina Bohannan, a freshman Democrat from Iowa City, said. “But it will dramatically affect the lives and health of people who happen to have had the bad luck to be born female.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Dennison. Official photo

Holt repeatedly insisted the amendment would not lead to attempts to ban abortions.

Wolfe is a practicing attorney. Bohannan is Lauridsen Family Fellow in Law and director of the Master of Studies in Law program at the University of Iowa College of Law. Holt, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is the former owner of a shaved ice stand and a DVD store, and currently lists his occupation as “Retired USMC.”

Democratic lawmakers proposed a series of changes to HJR 5. One would have created an exception for abortions in the cases where carrying a pregnancy to term would endanger a woman’s life, and another would have created exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Another proposal would have stated the amendment does not prohibit any “measure, drug or chemical designed for the purpose of contraception.”

The Republican majority rejected all those proposed changes.

To became part of the Iowa Constitution, the amendment will need to be passed by the Iowa Senate. Then it will need to be passed by both chambers of the legislature again during the session that begins in January 2023. If it does, it will be put on the ballot in the November 2024 general election. If a majority of voters approve it, the amendment will be added to the constitution.

Demonstrators gather on the University of Iowa Pentacrest for a pro-choice rally on Friday, May 17, 2019, in response to restrictive anti-abortion laws passed in Iowa, Georgia and other states. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

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