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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Iowa Supreme Court upholds six-week abortion ban

Iowa's so-called fetal heartbeat statute, which blocks abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, is "rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in protecting unborn life," the state's high court found.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — An Iowa abortion law that bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy does not violate the state or federal constitution, a divided Iowa Supreme Court said in a decision handed down Friday.

Iowa’s so-called fetal heartbeat statute, enacted last year in a special legislative session, bans abortion with limited exceptions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected. That typically occurs at about six weeks of gestation — before some women realize they are pregnant.

The statute was blocked by a state district court injunction, which the state then appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. And in a ruling Friday, a slim 4-3 majority of the court declared the law constitutional and dissolved the injunction blocking it.

“Applying our established tiers of scrutiny, we hold that abortion restrictions alleged to violate the due process clause are subject to the rational basis test,” Justice Matthew McDermott wrote for the majority. He was joined by Justices Christopher McDonald, Dana Oxley, and David May.

“Employing that test here, we conclude that the fetal heartbeat statute is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in protecting unborn life,” McDermott added. “We thus reverse the district court order entering the temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the fetal heartbeat statute."

Joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman, Chief Justice Susan Christensen wrote a passionate dissent. All seven members of the court were appointed by Republican governors, who pick from a slate of applicants chosen by a nonpartisan nominating commission.

“Today, our court’s majority strips Iowa women of their bodily autonomy by holding that there is no fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy under our state constitution. I cannot stand by this decision,” Christensen wrote.

Christensen called the majority decision a “giant step backward” in the progress Iowa has made in women’s equality since the drafting of its constitution in 1857.

“The majority’s rigid approach relies heavily on the male-dominated history and traditions of the 1800s, all the while ignoring how far women’s rights have come since the Civil War era," she wrote. "It is a bold assumption to think that the drafters of our state constitution intended for their interpretation to stand still while we move forward as a society. Instead, we should interpret our constitution through a modern lens that recognizes how our lives have changed with the passage of time.”

Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, applauded the decision in a statement Friday.

“There is no right more sacred than life, and nothing more worthy of our strongest defense than the innocent unborn,” Reynolds stated. “Iowa voters have spoken clearly through their elected representatives, both in 2018 when the original heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, and again in 2023 when it passed by an even larger margin. I’m glad that the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld the will of the people of Iowa.”

Ruth Richardson — president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of North Central States and the lead plaintiff in the case challenging the law — said the court’s “dangerous and reprehensible ruling will impact Iowans for generations to come."

"Abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care," Richardson said. "Every person deserves to have the full range of sexual and reproductive health care they need, including abortion, no matter their ZIP code. Each patient is the expert on their own life, and we trust patients to make decisions about their health, families, and futures. We will not give up.”

A key issue in the court’s decision was the appropriate standard for assessing the constitutionality of the abortion statute.

The court in 2020 held that abortion — while not a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution — was subject to the U.S. Supreme Court’s undue burden standard, which holds that courts must weigh the impacts that legislation like abortion restrictions have on people's rights.

At the time, that standard had not yet been abandoned as a legal test for abortion laws. But it was two years later, when the high court overturned around 50 years of Roe v. Wade precedent in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

With Friday's decision, Iowa now joins 27 other states with similar abortion bans based on gestational age of the fetus, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive research and health policy organization.

Facing a range of options — with strict scrutiny being the most stringent constitutional standard for assessing abortion restrictions — the Iowa court in Friday’s decision opted for rational basis review, the lowest standard.

“Stated simply, we can find no principled basis under our due process precedents to apply the heightened scrutiny of an undue burden test to abortion,” McDermott wrote.

"It would appear we’re not alone in our judgment," McDermott added. "In the time since Dobbs discarded Casey’s undue burden standard, no state appears to have applied the undue burden test to a law restricting abortion based on a state constitution’s due process clause.”

Under rational basis analysis, a statute is constitutional if there is a reasonable fit between the government interest and the means for advancing that interest. The court said the abortion ban is rationally related to legitimate state interests, including respect for and preservation of prenatal life at all stages of development.

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