Judge Strikes Down Iowa Fetal-Heartbeat Law

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa Legislature’s latest effort to ban early-term abortions was struck down as unconstitutional Tuesday by a state judge who said the detection of a heartbeat does not necessarily indicate a viable pregnancy.  

Polk County District Court Judge Michael Huppert ruled on summary judgment that Iowa’s law prohibiting abortion upon the detection of a fetal heartbeat violates the equal protection and due process provisions of the Iowa Constitution.

The law passed in last year’s legislative session had been on hold while the legal challenge to it proceeded, and the judge Tuesday permanently enjoined the state from implementing or enforcing the statute.

The abortion restriction signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds in May was passed in the middle of the night by the GOP-controlled Legislature entirely with Republican votes.

Senate File 359 has been called the strictest abortion law in the nation. It would have prohibited a physician from performing an abortion “when it has been determined that the unborn child has a detectable fetal heartbeat,” which happens as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

The lawsuit challenging the legislation was filed in Polk County District Court last May by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Dr. Jill Meadows and the Emma Goldman Clinic of Iowa City.

The Hawkeye State is represented in the case by the Thomas More Society, at no cost to taxpayers, following a decision by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, not to defend the statute.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds released a statement Tuesday saying, “I am incredibly disappointed in today’s court ruling, because I believe that if death is determined when a heart stops beating, then a beating heart indicates life.”

In a statement Tuesday, Meadows, medical director for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, called the ruling “a victory for every Iowan who has ever needed or will need a safe, legal abortion.”

“At Planned Parenthood, we’re here to provide nonjudgmental support and factual, medically accurate information so that every patient can make their own personal decision about a pregnancy based on their own values, desires and needs, without political interference,” Meadows said. “We are pleased that especially today, on the 46th anniversary of the landmark decision Roe v. Wade, abortion care was upheld as a safe and legal part of basic reproductive health care.”

The parties disputed whether a fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as the sixth week of gestation, as Planned Parenthood argued, or as late as nine weeks, as the state argued.

But Judge Huppert said the difference of two or three weeks does not matter.

“Regardless of when precisely when a fetal heartbeat may be detected in a given pregnancy, it is undisputed that such cardiac activity is detectable well in advance of the fetus becoming viable,” he wrote in the nine-page opinion.

Fetal viability “is not only material to this case, it is dispositive,” Huppert wrote, and he pointed to last year’s decision by the Iowa Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds, which held that a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy is a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution.

The statute struck down in that decision required a woman to wait 72 hours between seeking an abortion and undergoing the procedure. In that ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court held that two state interests were identified – protecting the health of the woman, and the interest in promoting potential life.

“It is undisputed in the present case that it is the second state interest (the promotion of potential life) that is at issue in analyzing the constitutionality” of the fetal-heartbeat law, Huppert wrote.

He continued, “While the court in [Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds] did not expressly address the previability versus postviability dichotomy from [Roe v. Wade] and its progeny, this court is satisfied that such an analysis is inherent in the Iowa Supreme Court’s adoption of a strict scrutiny test when determining whether a legislative restriction on a woman’s fundamental right to decide to terminate a pregnancy passes constitutional muster.”

“This court is equally satisfied that [the fetal-heartbeat law] fails in this regard as a prohibition of previability abortions,” Huppert added.

Last June, Huppert issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the fetal-heartbeat law. He heard oral arguments on Planned Parenthood’s motion for summary judgment last month.

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