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Judge strikes down Iowa’s latest attempt to impose an abortion waiting period

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Demonstrators gather on the University of Iowa Pentacrest for a pro-choice rally on Friday, May 17, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

A District Court Judge in Johnson County ruled on Monday that a law mandating a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion is unconstitutional, and issued a permanent injunction against the state enforcing it. Gov. Kim Reynolds had signed the measure — requiring a woman to have an appointment with a doctor at least 24-hours prior to an abortion, and provide a doctor with written certification that she is eligible to obtain an abortion — on June 29, 2020.

Judge Mitchell Turner, who issued a temporary injunction last year stopping the law from taking effect, issued the permanent injunction as part of a summary judgment resolving the case in favor of the plaintiffs, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who were represented in court by the ACLU of Iowa. Turner found they had “established the existence of undisputed facts, and have established success on the merits of their claims.”

“The decision is really essential for protecting abortion access for Iowans,” Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

Although it was a 24-hour delay in accessing abortion services the law required, in practical terms it could have delayed a procedure by weeks if there was difficulty in scheduling the legislatively mandated but medically unnecessary appointment due to limited availability at a clinic.

The law was pushed through by Republican legislators in the final hours of the last day of the legislative session in 2020. It was added as a last-minute amendment to a bill dealing with the withdrawal of medical intervention needed to sustain the life of a critically ill child. There were no hearings on the amendment, and there was no opportunity for public comment on it before it was approved.

The amendment was added to the bill after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and it received final approval — with all the Legislature’s Republicans and one House Democrat voting in favor — in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The Iowa Constitution requires that bills only address one subject, and all amendments to a bill be germane to the subject of the bill. During the floor debate on the amendment that took place in the early hours of the final session of the Legislature in 2020, Rep. Brian Meyer, a Democrat from Polk County, told Speaker Pat Grassley he was confused by how the amendment was relevant to the bill and asked for clarification.

“Rep. Meyer, your point is well taken, the amendment is not germane,” Grassley replied. Grassley did not, however, take any steps to remove the amendment and, like the rest of his fellow Republicans in the Iowa House, voted to pass the bill.

Judge Turner cited Grassley’s statement in his ruling on Monday, which found the abortion restriction violated the Iowa Constitution in two ways.

First, the way it was passed clearly violated the constitutional provision requiring bills to only address a single topic.

“Upon review of both the Iowa Senate and House videos, it is abundantly clear to this Court that what occurred in the Iowa Legislature on June 13th and 14th, 2020 was exactly such ‘tricks in legislation’ and ‘mischiefs’ that the single-subject rule exists to prevent,” Turner wrote.

Secondly, the judge also found the waiting period to be in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution. It was on those grounds the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a 72-hour waiting period on abortion signed into law by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in 2017.

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In its 2018 decision striking down the 72-hour waiting period, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution provides a stronger guarantee of a woman’s right to access abortion services than the U.S. Constitution, writing that in “the Iowa constitution… implicit in the concept of ordered liberty is the ability to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.”

Republican lawmakers were fully aware the state’s highest court had struck down a mandatory waiting period for abortions when they added the 24-hour waiting period rule at the last minute in 2020. Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, said during the floor debate in 2020 the waiting period was intended to challenge the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018 decision.

“The very notion that somehow there’s a fundamental right in Iowa’s constitution is one of the most gross misuses of the power of the gavel,” according to Chapman.

Republican antipathy to the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Branstad is also the reason the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment adding anti-abortion language to the Iowa Constitution in May.

“To defend the dignity of all human life and protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth, 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 amendment states.

For it to become part of the state constitution, it will have to be passed again in the 2023-24 legislative session, and then approved by a majority of voters in a statewide general election.

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

This year, the amendment passed both chambers of the Legislature, almost entirely on party-line votes. In the Senate, every Republican voted in favor of it and every Democrat opposed it. In the House, three Republican joined all the chamber’s Democrats in voting against it.

Speaking at Tuesday’s news conference on the permanent injunction, Jamie Burch Elliot, director of Public Affair for Planned Parenthood North Central States, pointed to threats to reproductive choice posed by the proposed constitutional amendment.

“The court’s decision [on Monday] means access to safe and legal abortion in Iowa remains unchanged,” she said. “But this serves as a reminder of why the protections of the state constitution for abortion are so important, and why Iowans have to double down in the fight against the anti-abortion constitution amendment that lawmakers passed in this legislative session.”

In a written statement issued by the governor’s office on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Reynolds said she plans to appeal Turner’s ruling.

“In a court ruling issued yesterday, an Iowa District Court wrongly struck down our efforts to protect all innocent human life,” Reynolds said. “I will be working with our legal counsel to appeal this recent decision, and I believe we can win.”


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