Republicans push through new abortion restriction in Iowa legislature’s last session of 2020

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

Republicans in the Iowa legislature fast-tracked a bill imposing a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking an abortion. The bill was passed just hours after the new waiting period was first introduced. The quick series of votes came during the final session of the year for both the Iowa House of Representatives and the Iowa Senate, which started on Saturday night and stretched into early Sunday morning.

“The interesting thing about it: it’s a 24-hour waiting period and you didn’t even give women 24 hours notice that you would be stripping them of their rights,” Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines said during the floor debate in the Senate.

The 24-hour waiting period was attached as an amendment to a bill dealing with the withdrawal of medical intervention needed to sustain the life of a critically ill child. The amendment requires a doctor to get written certification from a woman that she is eligible to obtain an abortion, at least 24 hours before the procedure is performed.

“Waiting periods help ensure that decisions are made not under duress and under undue influences,” Rep Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, told members of the Iowa House.

“A 24-hour waiting period insinuates that a woman has not thought about this decision very carefully,” Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, said in response to the argument that new restriction was intended to give women a chance to think about their choice. “Women take their time, their own time, to make that decision. And this is an unfair burden to be placed upon someone.”

When the Senate took up the amended bill at almost 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, the first speaker returned to the argument that women needed more time to think about their decisions.

“Iowa has a three-day wait for marriage, a 72-hour waiting period after birth for adoption, 90-day waiting period for divorce,” Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said. “All of these waiting periods are to ensure Iowans who are making life-long decisions have time to reflect.”

Other supporters of the waiting period candidly acknowledged the bill was aimed at getting the Iowa Supreme Court to abandon its decision in 2018 striking down the 72-hour waiting period for an abortion that Gov. Terry Branstad had signed into law the year before. In that decision, the court ruled that the Iowa Constitution provided a stronger guarantee of a woman’s right to make her own decision regarding abortion than the U.S. Constitution does.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said during the debate on the bill that the waiting period was meant 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,” he said.

Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R- Peosta, had already made a similar point in the House: “Maybe this will provide an opportunity for the courts to rectify the terrible situation that they’ve created here in our state.”

Since the 2018 decision, four of the court’s seven members have been replaced by justices appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

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During an appearance before a conservative Christian gathering in July, 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 point, Reynolds had only appointed two of the four justices she has put on the court. In November, Chief Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the 2018 opinion striking down the 72-hour waiting period, unexpectedly died, and in January, Justice David Wiggins announced he was stepping down. Reynolds appointed replacements for both.

The governor has not said where she stands on the 24-hour waiting period, but Reynolds has signed into law every restriction on abortion the legislature has passed during her time as governor. In her Condition of the State speech in January, Reynolds called for the Iowa Constitution to be amended to include anti-abortion language.

Every Republican in both chambers of the legislature voted in favor of the 24-hour waiting period. They were joined by one Democrat, Rep. Andy McKean of Anamosa.

McKean has been in the Iowa House of Representatives for 30 years, but has only been a Democrat for one year. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat in April 2019, in what he described as a protest against President Donald Trump’s “unacceptable behavior.” Prior to his switch, McKean had been the longest-serving Republican in the legislature.