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Iowa governor asks judge to lift injunction against abortion law

The fetal heartbeat law was blocked by the state’s top court before the federal right to abortion was struck down.

(CN) — Lawyers representing Iowa's Republican Governor Kim Reynolds urged a state judge Friday to dissolve an injunction issued by the court in 2019 that permanently enjoined enforcement of a 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 that 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.

The injunction issued by the Polk County District Court was based on a 2018 decision of the Iowa Supreme Court that held there was a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution and that abortion restrictions must meet the strict scrutiny standard. The district court held that the fetal heartbeat law could not meet that test.

But on June 17, the Iowa Supreme Court – with four members of the court who joined the 2018 ruling having been replaced by new conservative justices – reversed that decision, saying it was wrongly decided and there is no fundamental right abortion under the state constitution.

With the door opened to reviving the fetal heartbeat law, lawyers for Governor Reynolds filed a motion asking the trial court to now lift the injunction.

At Friday’s hearing, attorney Christopher Schandevel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the governor, cited both the U.S. Supreme Court’s and the Iowa Supreme Court’s reversals of prior decisions protecting the right to abortion.

“As a result, my clients are in this court to ask the court to lift the injunction," he said, because those decisions that came after the injunction was issued “require a different result.”

In response, Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland that Iowa’s fetal heartbeat statute is unconstitutional even in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s June decision.

“This is a draconian and humane law that bans abortion before many women know they are pregnant,” she said. Bettis Austen said the June decision left in place the “undue burden” test previously used by the U.S. Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of abortion restrictions, and she said Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law cannot pass that test.

Polk County District Judge Celene Gogerty brought the issue back to a more fundamental question: “Does this court have jurisdiction to hear this motion?”

Schandevel said the district court does have jurisdiction because courts have authority to lift injunctions when there has been a change in the facts or in the law. In this case, he said, the law has been changed by both federal a state supreme courts.

Bettis Austen argued the law has not changed because the fetal heartbeat statute “clearly fails” the strict scrutiny standard for weighing the constitutionality of abortion regulations.

Schandevel argued, however, that the Iowa Supreme Court did not say strict scrutiny is the correct test. Rather, he said, the court left the question of the appropriate standard to be resolved in subsequent litigation. And he said it is appropriate for the district court to resolve that question in this case.

Judge Gogerty took the case under advisement and did not indicate when a ruling would be issued.

The governor’s legal counsel argued in a brief filed with the district court that the appropriate standard is rational basis review, under which a statute need only be “rationally rated to a legitimate state interest.” Under that standard, the state argues, “Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law rationally advances the state’s interest in 'respect for and preservation of prenatal life at all stages of development.'"

Reynolds is represented in the case by the out-of-state nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom 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.”

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