Pathways to life in Iowa
Pro-life organizations work to neutralize a state-level version of Roe v. Wade
For about an hour on a Thursday morning in February, Pulse Life Advocates Executive Director Maggie DeWitte sat with other pro-life leaders in the blue-carpeted chamber of the Iowa Supreme Court. As the group listened to oral arguments in the case Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds, DeWitte found some of the legalese hard to follow. But she understood a key argument of the Planned Parenthood lawyers: They claimed an Iowa law requiring women to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion violated the state constitution.
In 2018, the state Supreme Court struck down a 72-hour waiting period law and declared abortion to be a fundamental right in the Iowa Constitution, although the text of the document does not explicitly address the matter. The ruling essentially became a state-level version of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established a right to abortion in America.
The 2018 case caught pro-life Iowans off guard. “We did expect that they could come back and say, yeah, this is unconstitutional. But to take it a step further — no, we had no idea,” said DeWitte.
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe this summer when it rules in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortion will remain legal in Iowa under the state Supreme Court precedent. That’s why Iowa’s pro-life leaders have been working to reverse the 2018 decision and give the state more freedom to pass pro-life laws. The Planned Parenthood case heard in February could be one way to make that happen. Iowa’s assistant attorney general, Sam Langholz, argued the court should overturn its 2018 ruling. If that doesn’t work, Iowa pro-lifers have a second plan — a constitutional amendment that would clarify that the constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion.
In a last-minute move in 2020, lawmakers added a 24-hour abortion waiting period measure to an existing bill meant to limit a court’s ability to order a child removed from life support if the parents object. When the measure passed that June, DeWitte praised it as “a potential legal challenge to the Iowa Supreme Court’s notorious 2018 ruling.” (Planned Parenthood sued, with its attorneys arguing the abortion waiting period provision violates both the 2018 ruling and a legislative rule requiring bills to have only one subject.)
In writing the 5-2 majority opinion in 2018, former Chief Justice Mark Cady cited previous rulings calling the Iowa Constitution a “living and vital instrument” that should be “interpreted in accordance with the public interest … [to] be applied to new and changing conditions.” Cady also asserted that, since bodily autonomy is fundamental to freedom, “We therefore hold, under the Iowa Constitution, that implicit in the concept of ordered liberty is the ability to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.”
A year later, a district court used this precedent to strike down Iowa’s 2018 heartbeat bill. “So if there were any question before, we knew now … that we would not be able to restrict abortion in any way when you have a fundamental right,” said DeWitte.
Since those rulings, the makeup of the state Supreme Court has changed significantly. Cady died in 2019, and three justices who concurred with his 2018 opinion have resigned. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has since appointed four new justices, and although none have ruled on abortion-related cases yet, DeWitte hopes that the remade court could issue a favorable ruling in the 24-hour waiting period case. “But we’re not putting all our eggs in that basket,” she said.
The second basket DeWitte has in mind is a constitutional amendment. Soon after the 2018 ruling, a coalition of Iowa pro-life organizations began promoting the Protect Life Amendment, which states that the Iowa Constitution “does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.” The Iowa House and Senate passed the amendment proposal last year, but it still needs to be passed by a second legislative General Assembly and receive voter approval at the ballot box before it can take effect. Since in Iowa the next General Assembly doesn’t start until 2023, pro-life groups will have to wait a year or two for a second vote from lawmakers and then even longer for Iowa voters to weigh in.
Daniel Sunne from the Family Leader, another pro-life organization in Iowa, said his group is viewing the upcoming 2022 elections with pro-life legislation in mind. Due to redistricting, two Republicans who opposed the amendment proposal in 2021 are now running against pro-life state Reps. Steve Bradley and Dean Fisher, whom the Family Leader endorsed earlier this year. Sunne said both will be critical to potentially resurrecting the state’s 2018 heartbeat law and passing a life-at-conception bill in the future if the U.S. Supreme Court this summer decides to give states more freedom to protect unborn babies.
As pro-life Iowans await decisions from the U.S. and Iowa supreme courts and a vote on the Protect Life Amendment, both Sunne and DeWitte say they’re focusing on the More Options for Maternal Support (MOMS) Act. It would earmark state funds for Iowa’s roughly 40 pregnancy centers, organizations that can help empower women to keep their babies. DeWitte said her group is monitoring the bill’s progress as it moves through legislative committees, encouraging legislators to support and sponsor it and arranging for pregnancy center staff to testify on the bill’s behalf.
Pulse Life Advocates said it expects a ruling on the 24-hour waiting period law before June 30.
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