With the legislative session closed, activists respond to the Iowa Legislature’s conservative turn

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren
By Lauren Shotwell & Eleanore Taft

Gov. Terry Branstad heralded this year as “one of the most significant and productive sessions in our history.” And it certainly did produce a large volume of wide-ranging, impactful bills. But for some, those bills represented a sharp lurch to the right and an abrupt end to bipartisan Iowa politics. Among the measures that left Iowa organizations and activists gearing up for a fight are laws impacting women’s access to abortions, reducing union bargaining rights, expanding and protecting access to guns and decreased support for public education.

Some measures, including a 72-hour waiting period for abortions and restrictions on collective bargaining rights for public employees, have already been challenged in court.

Women’s Access and Choice

A slew of new regulations targeting women’s access to abortions includes a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, with exceptions only if the mother’s life is at risk or in a medical emergency, and provisions initiating a 72-hour waiting period between requesting and receiving an abortion, with clinics required to provide mandated literature about the risks of abortion procedures and information about adoptions.

Another bill, signed by Branstad on May 12, will cost Iowa about $3 million in federal Medicaid funding in an effort to cut off funds for clinics that perform abortions.

“In light of this news, we are turning over every rock, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ’t’ to explore our options to defend our mission and patients,” Suzanna de Baca, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland president and CEO, said in a statement. “We will do all we can to keep our health centers open in as many communities as possible, and we will continue to provide high-quality care to as many patients as possible.”

Representatives for Planned Parenthood said the cuts were “devastating” and were most likely to impact society’s most vulnerable — low income, rural citizens who already face barriers to getting health care.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland filed a lawsuit challenging the 72-hour waiting period and a requirement for an additional appointment, which Veronica Fowler, communications director for the Iowa ACLU, called “medically unnecessary.” The lawsuit was filed in district court and struck down by the judge, and was subsequently appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which granted a temporary injunction. As of publishing, the case had been bumped back to district court.

“We hope that the courts recognize our argument that these provisions are overly burdensome and they make it very difficult for women to get access to abortion services,” Fowler said.

During the brief, two-hour period between Branstad’s signing the law and the court injunction, women who had abortions scheduled were “thrown into chaos,” Rachel Lopez, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland public relations manager, said. Forty-four abortions were scheduled for that day, but some had to be turned away because they arrived during that two-hour window.

“One woman got almost all the way home, two hours away, and then had to come back. It was really, really heartbreaking for those women,” Lopez said.

Francine Thompson, Director of Health Services at the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City, said the delay could mean that some women would no longer be able to have non-surgical procedures and could increase costs, since women would rack up expenses in gas, time off of work and child care in order to make additional visits. She said the emphasis appeared to be more on restrictions and barriers to access, rather than any effort to make procedures safer.

“It’s insulting, isn’t it, to think that the decisions are being made because the folks who are coming up with the legislation don’t think that women are able to give good thought and make good decisions with good information,” she said. “We are thoughtful; we are able to make serious and complex decisions about our lives without someone telling us that we need to spend a designated amount of time thinking about it or receiving mandated information.”

The new law makes Iowa one of the most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to abortion, Fowler said. Although a number of states have shorter waiting periods, Iowa joins only a handful of states with 72-hour waiting periods.

“The biggest misconception over the 20-week ban is there’s this perception that women are somehow being careless, or taking their time for reasons other than very grave personal ones to wait until after 20 weeks,” Lopez said, adding that abortions after 20 weeks are rare and often due to fetal anomalies. She said it can be hard for people who have not been in those situations to understand those decisions.

The 20-week ban only has narrow exemptions to save the mother’s life and does not exempt cases of rape, incest or fetal anomaly.

“It could pose very real life and death health issues for women,” Lopez said of the narrow exemption. “None of this is founded in scientific facts. It is based on the personal beliefs of extremist lawmakers, many of whom, because of their actual gender and sex, will never have to make this kind of decision.”

Drew Zahn, director of communications for the FAMiLY LEADER, which pushed for further restrictions on abortions, said the group agreed with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office’s response to the lawsuit.

“There is no constitutional right to ‘abortion on demand,’” Zahn said in an email, “and we furthermore believe that 72 hours is not too long to make a life-and-death decision.”

Efforts to pass a “life at conception” bill faltered this year, but Zahn said the FAMiLY LEADER would continue to work towards legislation to protect human life “from the moment of conception to natural death.”

Lopez said that she did not wish to speculate about what legislation might come out of the next legislative session, but said that Planned Parenthood will continue to fight against restrictions on access to reproductive health care and abortions.

Fowler said she encourages people to donate to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU and to reach out to state legislators.

“Tell them that you object to politicians making decisions about women’s health,” she said.

Collective Bargaining and Minimum Wage

A bill to significantly limit collective bargaining for most public employees and another to preempt local minimum wage increases were among the bills this year that inspired crowds to pack the Iowa Capitol Building for hearings. Despite the large show of opposition, the bills passed quickly through the Republican-controlled legislature, with legislators voting almost entirely along party lines.

Those bills were criticized as being influenced by similar bill proposals from the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

“I have concerns that we’ve just begun to see the implementation of the Koch brothers’ master plan in terms of driving down wages of workers,” Ken Sagar, Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president, said.

Sagar and AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Charlie Wishman said limiting public workers’ right to bargain for benefits would affect 184,000 families across the state and they worried it could intensify population decline in rural counties by cutting better paying jobs.

During the public hearing in February, supporters of the bill said Iowa’s collective bargaining system was outdated and a drain on state budgets. Gretchen Tegeler, president of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, praised the bill during the hearing as a win for taxpayers.

Wishman said many Iowans are also impacted by legislation that rolled back minimum wage increases in five counties, preventing local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the statewide minimum (currently $7.25 per hour).

“Those are the largest population centers in our state and have some of the jobs that pay some of the lowest wages,” Wishman said.

They also said they are concerned about the cost to taxpayers for lawsuits against the state government over controversial bills this session. Both the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Iowa Council 61, which represents 40,000 public employees, and the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), which represents 34,000 school employees, are challenging the Chapter 20 revision in court.

“It seems like this legislature has just been a lawsuit legislature, because I don’t think a lot of these bills were necessarily thought out that well,” Sagar said.

ISEA president Tammy Wawro said the group’s lawsuit targets three provisions in the law. The lawsuit argues that the law is unconstitutional because it gives more rights to public safety employees, who can still bargain for things like health care, while other public employees can only bargain for wages. It also argues against prohibiting public employees from paying union membership dues through payroll deductions while allowing such deductions for dues paid to other organizations.

“Is that equal and fair under the Iowa Constitution? We believe it’s not,” Wawro said. “They hope that if they can come after our ability to organize and have attorneys to be working for us that we can be silenced.”

The lawsuit also challenges a provision in the law that sets up a new voting mechanism for elections within school districts to determine whether or not to keep the union. Under the new method, any person who does not vote is counted as a “no” vote.

Wawro said ISEA membership has actually increased since this legislation was introduced, and she’s glad it has motivated outreach and organizing in favor of education unions. But she said she’s worried that teachers may leave a state that isn’t willing to invest in education.

Wawro said winning seats in municipal elections and holding elected officials accountable can also help safeguard teachers’ benefits.


The Washington Post described Iowa’s new gun legislation this way: “With one stroke of a pen, Gov. Terry Branstad made Iowa one of the friendliest states in America for gun owners.”

The bill, House File 517, which was signed into law on April 13, contains a whole slew of provisions. It is a triumph for Second Amendment fans, allowing individuals to sue local government officials if they believe that a gun-free zone has violated their Second Amendment rights — a measure which has raised safety concerns at local courthouses and city halls.

Donna Wong-Gibbons, the Iowa state lead for Mom’s Demand Action, said they were disappointed to see that preemption measure become law.

“Iowa law enforcement leaders had some concerns about that, so we are as disappointed as they are,” she said. “We think it’s really important to listen to our law enforcement on things like this because they are the ones out there, putting their lives at risk.”

She also cited concerns about the bill’s “Stand Your Ground” policies, which open up the door to individuals “who are not engaged in illegal activity” to use deadly force if they think their lives are threatened.

Among the bill’s other provisions: Kids under 14 can now use pistols or revolvers if they are supervised by someone 21 or older; records of gun permit holders are now confidential; and concealed-carry is now legal at state capitol buildings and grounds.

Barry Snell of the Iowa Firearms Coalition — which heralded the legislation as “the biggest gun bill in state history!” — did not respond to requests for comment.

Wong-Gibbons did cite some wins for gun safety activists: failed proposals to remove requirements for background checks and nixing permits for conceal and carry.

“It would not surprise me, personally, if we saw these dangerous provisions again next year,” she said. “But we will continue to be involved and continue to be concerned and continue to let legislators know that these issues are important public safety measures.”

She said membership in her organization had grown by 300 percent over the last legislative session and people seemed to be more engaged, but that talking about guns can still be a challenge.

“The knee jerk reaction is: ‘You want to take our guns away,’” she said. “No, we are committed to is having sensible laws like permits and background checks and safe storage. We are all about safety and reducing gun violence and gun deaths. Most people don’t argue with that, but because it is a contentious issue it can be hard to get people to listen.”

Although it can be difficult to hold conversations across party lines, activists say they are determined to keep reaching out to legislators and encouraging citizens to speak out, and, come 2018, to get out and vote.

Lauren Shotwell and Eleanore Taft found this legislative session exhausting. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 221.

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