Iowa Senate Republicans pass an anti-abortion amendment to the Iowa Constitution

An estimated 26,000 marchers gathered in Des Moines on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 for the worldwide Women’s March. — Mei-Ling Shaw/Little Village

Republicans in the Iowa Senate approved an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would undermine a woman’s right to an abortion on Tuesday. Senate Joint Resolution 2 passed on a party-line vote, with all Senate Republicans voting in favor and all the chamber’s Democrats voting against it.

“Everyone deserves the freedom to make medical decisions based on their own specific conditions and circumstances,” Sen. Amanda Ragan, a Democrat from Mason City, said during the debate on SJR 2 before the vote. “For the first time ever, the amendment would take away basic rights instead of protecting them.”

The Senate’s amendment uses slightly different language than the anti-abortion amendment approved by the Iowa House in January. That amendment was also passed with only Republican votes, but three Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in opposing it.

The Senate amendment has been sent to House for a vote.

The amendment the House approved in January 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.”

The Senate’s text is longer and amends the constitution to include: “To defend the dignity of all human life, and to protect mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution shall not be construed to recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.”

Both chambers of the Legislature need to pass an amendment in two consecutive sessions before it can be put on a general election ballot. If the Republicans who lead the Senate and the House both pass the same amendment — either the House version, the Senate version or some other version — this session and do so again the session beginning in January 2023, the amendment would be included in the November 2024 general election. If it receives approval from a simple majority of voters, the amendment would be added to the Iowa Constitution.

An Iowa Poll conducted last month found that only 31 percent of Iowans supported adding anti-abortion language to the constitution, while 58 percent opposed it. Only among self-identified Republicans was there majority support for such an amendment. The survey of 775 Iowa adults by Selzer & Co. found 55 percent of Republicans saying they supported an anti-abortion amendment, bot only 9 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents favored.

Opposition to amending the state constitution to add anti-abortion language has actually grown since last year, according to the Iowa Poll. In 2020, 54 percent of respondents opposed it, and that number grew by four percentage points in this year’s poll.

In her 2020 Condition of the State Speech, Gov. Kim Reynolds called adding anti-abortion language to the Iowa Constitution one of her top priorities. An amendment passed the Iowa Senate last year, but the House did not take it up during the pandemic-shortened session.

Video still of Gov. Kim Reynolds delivering the Condition of the State speech, Jan. 12, 2021.

It is possible that public opposition to restricting the right of a woman to choose an abortion is the reason some amendment supporters insist the amendments under consideration are really aimed at curbing the power of judges.

“We have five unelected judges who used the power of the pen and the gavel to rewrite Iowa’s constitution,” Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, said Tuesday. “And that is why we are here today, unfortunately, because of the usurpation of power exerted by one branch of government.”

Chapman was referring to the 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds. In its ruling, the 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 voted 5-2 that 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.”

Republican Sen. Julian Garrett of Indianola called the court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds “made-up law” during the debate on Tuesday.

Democrats rejected the claim that the amendment is about the power of the courts and not women’s rights

“This amendment is being advertised as being abortion neutral, and that simply is not true,” Sen. Jackie Smith of Sioux City said. “This is a constitutional amendment that will no longer protect a woman’s right to end a pregnancy under any circumstance, including pregnancies that result from rape or incest or when a woman’s life is at risk.”

“This is just part of a broader and even more extreme agenda where the focus will be on passing law after law to make legal abortion care inaccessible,” Sen. Janet Petersen of Des Moines said.

Emma Goldman Clinic Co-Director Francine Thompson gives a speech at a pro-choice rally on the UI Pentacrest. Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Since the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court shifted even further rightward with the three appointments by President Donald Trump, many abortion opponents are expecting the nation’s highest court to further restrict the right to choose an abortion recognized in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and possibly either overturn the Roe decision or render it essentially unencodable, allowing states to ban abortion.

The Iowa Supreme Court has seen an even larger turnover in justices since its 2018 decision. Since then, Gov. Reynolds has appointed four of the current seven justices, including a replacement for Chief Justice Cady, who died unexpectedly in November 2019.

During an appearance before a conservative Christian gathering in July 2019, Reynolds boasted that “the tide is turning in Iowa’s Supreme Court,” she added, “In just two short years, we’ve moved the needle from left to right.”

At that time, Reynolds had only appointed two of the four justices she has placed on the Iowa Supreme Court.

Before the vote on Tuesday, Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, a Democrat from Windsor Heights, asked Republican senators to consider the consequences of what they were about to do.

“Whatever your idea is about what this legislation is going to do — whatever you think the intent is when someone chooses abortion — know that this will mean there will always be Iowans in complicated situations you did not account for, situations in which you can’t begin to know what you would do if you were in their shoes,” she said.

SJR 2 was passed by the Senate on a vote of 30-17.

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