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Fetal heartbeat law goes before Iowa Supreme Court

The state’s top court heard debate on whether to allow a harsh abortion restriction to take effect in the Hawkeye State.

(CN) — The Iowa Supreme Court weighed whether to lift a lower court injunction on the state's fetal heartbeat abortion restriction on Tuesday, the latest conflict in a long-running legal battle over Iowans' access to the procedure.

That battle began in May 2018 when the Iowa Legislature passed a fetal heartbeat law with the support of GOP Governor Kim Reynolds. The law prohibits abortion as soon as a physician can detect a fetal heartbeat, which often occurs by the sixth week in pregnancy and before would-be mothers even know they're pregnant.

It never took effect. An Iowa state court issued a permanent injunction against the law in January 2019, following a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood and the state's top court deciding in June 2018 that Iowans have a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed that decision last June, following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade and the seating of four new conservative Iowa high court justices. In August, Reynolds asked the lower state court to dissolve its injunction on the fetal heartbeat law, based on the supreme court's reversal. Polk County District Judge Celene Gogerty denied that request in December.

Gogerty found in her ruling that while the state high court had decided Iowans did not have a constitutional right to abortion, it had not assessed the constitutionality of existing abortion regulations in state law. Given this lack of guidance, Gogerty wrote that the fetal heartbeat law would still create an undue burden on those seeking abortions in Iowa per the undue burden standard established in the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

"The ban on nearly all abortions under [the fetal heartbeat law] would be an undue burden and, therefore, the statute would still be unconstitutional and void," Gogerty wrote in December.

Reynolds and the Iowa Board of Medicine immediately appealed the decision to the state's high court, leading to Tuesday morning's arguments.

"For close to a hundred years this court has repeatedly re-affirmed that courts have the authority to vacate or modify their own injunctions based on a substantial change in the law," argued attorney Chris Schandevel, of the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, on behalf of the governor. "The district court tried to distinguish each of those cases based on... distinctions that do not make a difference here."

Schandevel said the Iowa Supreme Court would have to rewrite its case law on abortion access in order to be in line with Gogerty's ruling, and argued instead that her ruling should simply be thrown out. He conceded that the fetal heartbeat law would always fail under Casey's undue burden standard, but suggested that the state's high court should now re-litigate whether "undue burden" should still be the governing principle in assessing the law.

Instead of undue burden, Schandevel argued the state justices should evaluate the law using the "rational basis analysis" laid out by the nation's high court in its 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision which overturned Roe. Per rational basis, SCOTUS found that states can limit abortion access if it serves "legitimate state interests," including "the protection of maternal health and safety" and "the elimination of particularly gruesome or barbaric medical procedures."

"The only option available to the court is rational basis analysis," Schandevel said.

This opinion was questioned by Justice Edward Mansfield, who asked if there might be an "intermediary standard" between undue burden and rational basis.

Schandevel responded that there might be, but only if abortion was still considered a fundamental right in Iowa or the U.S.

"When there is no fundamental right at stake, the court has to use rational basis," he said.

When attorney Peter Im, representing Planned Parenthood and the other appellees, presented his own case, he encountered immediate resistance from the court's more conservative judges.

"The state is asking this court to disregard the Iowa Constitution and its own procedural rules to revive a statute that was declared void over four years ago, and has been enjoined ever since," Im began.

Im further argued that the fetal heartbeat law was unconstitutional when the Legislature passed it, and that Iowa procedural law does not permit the state's motion for an injunction reversal. These arguments were rebuffed by Justice Christopher McDonald, who questioned how the fetal heartbeat law was "void."

Im responded that Iowa law demands any legislation which is out of step with the state constitution when it is passed, including the fetal heartbeat bill, "shall be void."

"As though it never existed," the attorney added.

McDonald waved off this criticism. He compared it to a lower state court ruling which found the state high court's pandemic supervisory order on Iowa's statute of limitations was unconstitutional, and challenged Im to evaluate the supervisory order given that ruling. When Im tried to move past the challenge by saying the justices could evaluate that order should it ever be challenged in another case, McDonald, smirking, held him to it.

"What's the status of our supervisory order if your theory of law is correct?" McDonald asked.

Other justices joined in to challenge Im as he formulated an answer for McDonald, before he managed to change tracks and challenge the appeal's procedural basis.

"Even if the court concludes that the law is not void, as an initial matter the appeal is not properly before the court," Im said. He argued that a lack of final judgment on the heartbeat law's constitutionality precluded any appeals of an injunction against it, and that a change in subsequent law does not automatically justify the modification of an injunction.

"If this court were to allow the state to proceed on the merits, that would open the floodgates of litigation to any litigant that is bound by an injunction," Im said.

McDonald and other justices again challenged Im, with McDonald saying there were "600 years of common law history in every jurisdiction in America" that would allow the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn an injunction based on a change in law - in this case, the Iowa high court's own reversal of its 2018 affirmation of abortion's constitutional protections in the state.

The justices' skepticism continued through the rest of Im's presentation. The court took both his and Schandeval's arguments under advisement but did not say when they would issue a ruling.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Health, Law, Regional

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