Judge strikes down Iowa’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ law

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Photo by John via Flickr

A district court judge in Polk County struck down Iowa’s so-called “fetal heartbeat” law on Tuesday. Judge Michael Huppert ruled the law, which banned almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected at six weeks, violates the state’s constitution.

“We are grateful the Court blocked Gov. Reynolds’ egregious attempt to ban safe, legal abortion in Iowa,” Erin Davison-Rippey, state executive director for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (PPH), said in a written statement following the decision.

PPH joined with Iowa City’s Emma Goldman Clinic and the ACLU of Iowa in a lawsuit to overturn the fetal heartbeat bill, just days after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed it into law in May.

“Today’s victory is essential to the rights and safety of women in Iowa,” Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It follows in the footsteps of the Iowa Supreme Court decision on abortion in 2018 that recognized the fundamental right to a safe and legal abortion for Iowa women, which cannot be legislated away. Today’s decision upholds women’s freedom and equality in Iowa.”

The 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision Bettis Austen referenced struck down a 72-hour mandatory waiting period for abortions, signed by Gov. Terry Branstad in May 2017. Although federal courts have allowed 27 states to impose a mandatory waiting period, claiming they do not impose an “undue burden” on women, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the state constitution affords a much stronger guarantee of the rights of women.

Ultimately, adopting the undue burden standard [which federal courts use] would relegate the individual rights of Iowa women to something less than fundamental. It would allow the legislature to intrude upon the profoundly personal realms of family and reproductive autonomy, virtually unchecked, so long as it stopped just short of requiring women to move heaven and earth.

The Iowa Constitution, the court concluded, required that any law restricting a person’s fundamental rights, including a woman’s reproductive rights, must pass the legal standard of “strict scrutiny” — the state must show a compelling reason for the law, and the law must be drafted as narrowly as possible.

“The guarantee of substantive due process requires nothing less,” the court wrote.

Judge Huppert cited that section of the Supreme Court’s decision as the basis for his ruling.

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement on Tuesday, declaring she is “incredibly disappointed in today’s court ruling.”

There were no immediate announcements regarding whether the judge’s decision would be appealed. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller declined to defend the law in court, because “he could not zealously assert the state’s position because of his core belief that the statute, if upheld, would undermine rights and protections for women,” his office explained in May. Instead, the state relied on attorneys from the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm known for its conservative views and work against abortion.

When Republicans in the Iowa legislature pushed through the fetal heartbeat bill in a series of party-line votes last year, they welcomed the possibility of lawsuits and hoped the bill would find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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

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But that would have required opponents to challenge the law in federal court. PPH, Emma Goldman and the ACLU of Iowa chose to sue in state court instead, because of the greater protection offered to women’s rights by the Iowa Constitution.

If the fetal heartbeat law had been allowed to go into effect, it would have been the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.

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