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Iowa governor asks court to reinstate fetal heartbeat law after Roe reversal

The Republican governor argues a state court injunction barring enforcement of the 2018 law should be lifted now that there is no longer a federal constitutional right to abortion.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Republican Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa asked a state trial court Thursday to lift its injunction that bars enforcement of a 2018 state law that makes abortions illegal after a fetal heartbeat has been detected.

The governor’s move comes in response to the June 24 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a nationwide right to abortion. Just one week earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled there is no fundamental right to an abortion under the Iowa Constitution, reversing a decision handed down just four years earlier that had declared such a right existed.

As a result of the federal and state decisions, Reynolds is now seeking to lift the injunction that prevents enforcement of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law. The governor is represented in the case by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an out-of-state nonprofit legal organization, because Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, had earlier disqualified himself from the fetal heartbeat case. He said at the time he “could not zealously assert the state's position because of my core belief that the statute, if upheld, would undermine rights and protections for women.”

The ADF, in a statement released Thursday, said its goal is to protect life.

“States like Iowa can now affirm that life is a human right and ensure women have real support when faced with a pregnancy,” said ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life. “We’re pleased to work alongside Governor Reynolds to help defend Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law as we continue our crucial efforts promoting life-affirming laws for mothers and children.”

The plaintiff in the case, Planned Parenthood, said in a statement Friday that Reynolds' move "is both dangerous to women’s health and cruel."

"The governor’s effort is in open conflict with the will of the people she represents, with 60% of Iowans saying they support safe and legal abortion," said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States. "If she is successful, her move will cause harm to Iowans and their families, as we have seen occurring in states such as Texas where a similar ban has taken effect.”

Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law, among the strictest abortion laws in the nation, would prohibit a physician from performing an abortion “when it has been determined that the unborn child has a detectable fetal heartbeat,” or at about six weeks. The law contains exceptions for medical emergencies, including threats to the mother’s life and for rape, incest and fetal abnormality.

A Polk County District Court judge in 2019 permanently enjoined enforcement of the law based on the ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court just the year before that recognized a fundamental right to abortion under the Iowa Constitution. Then, on June 17, the Iowa Supreme Court – with four members of the court who voted for that ruling having been replaced by new conservative justices – reversed the 2018 ruling, saying there was no fundamental right abortion under the state constitution.

That cleared the way for the governor to move for lifting the injunction on the fetal heartbeat law.

The only question remaining is what constitutional standard should be applied by the trial court in assessing the legality of the law.

Previously, courts applied a strict scrutiny standard for judging abortion restrictions, but with abortion no longer protected by the federal or Iowa constitutions, that standard no longer applies.

The ADF, in a brief filed with the state court, argues for a lenient, rational basis test, which requires that a statute need only be rationally related to a legitimate state interest, and which requires only a reasonable fit between the government interest and the statute’s means used to advance that interest.

The ADF brief said Iowa’s law could pass that test.

“The reasonable fit here is obvious. Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law rationally advances the state’s interest in ‘respect for and preservation of prenatal life at all stages of development,’ ” it said, quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.

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