Monday, February 26

Iowa Supreme Court rules abortion is not protected by state constitution

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday cleared the way for lawmakers to severely limit or even ban abortion in the state, reversing a decision by the court just four years ago that guaranteed the right to abortion under the Iowa Constitution.

The court, now composed almost entirely of Republican appointees, concluded that a less conservative court wrongly decided that abortion is among the fundamental privacy rights guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution and federal law.

Friday’s ruling comes amid expectations that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to choose to have an abortion nationwide. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, Iowa lawmakers could ban abortion in the state without completing the lengthy process of amending the state constitution.

The Iowa decision came after the state appealed a lower court ruling in 2020, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by abortion providers that challenged a law requiring people to wait 24 hours before having an abortion. A judge who struck down the law cited the state high court’s 2018 decision, ruling that the choice to have an abortion was a constitutional right in Iowa. The judge also concluded that the law violated rules prohibiting passage of bills with more than one subject.

The state Supreme Court returned the waiting-period case to district court.

In its 2018 ruling, decided by a 5-2 vote, the court said that “autonomy and dominion over one’s body go to the very heart of what it means to be free.”

The reversal of that decision reflects a dramatic change in the court’s structure. Governor Kim Reynolds has named four justices since 2017, and six of the seven people on the court have been appointed by Republican governors.

Reynolds, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights, and Republicans in the legislature have repeatedly said they hoped the court would overturn the 2018 ruling. With that in mind, Reynolds and GOP lawmakers gave the governor more control over the panel that chooses which lawyers and judges are nominated for court positions.

The 2018 decision had made Iowa the sixth state — with Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Montana and Minnesota — where the right to have an abortion was recognized by the state’s high court.

As in Iowa, Republicans control the legislatures and governorships in Florida and Montana, where GOP leaders have been stymied from enacting abortion bans that could take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and puts decision-making powers in the hands of state governments.

In Montana, a challenge to abortion restrictions that could test that state’s high court opinion is before the Supreme Court.

In Iowa, Reynolds has not directly answered questions about whether she would support statewide restrictions on abortion access without exceptions. She said last month she is “proud of the legislation she signed in 2018,” including the ban on abortions once cardiac activity is detected, as early as six weeks and often before many women know they are pregnant. The measure included exceptions to protect the life of the mother and in pregnancies that result from incest or rape.

Yet more recently, she stopped short of specifying similar exceptions. “I’m not going to set any parameters,” she told reporters.

Reynolds called Friday’s ruling “a significant victory in our fight to protect the unborn” in a statement. 

“The Iowa Supreme Court reversed its earlier 2018 decision, which made Iowa the most abortion-friendly state in the country,” the governor said. “Every life is sacred and should be protected, and as long as I’m governor that is exactly what I will do.”

Iowa Department of Public Health data shows there were 4,058 abortions in Iowa in 2020 — 835 by surgical procedure and 3,222 by medication. That was an increase from the previous year, when 3,566 abortions were reported. Iowa averaged just under 3,500 abortions a year from 2015 to 2019.

Court documents show Planned Parenthood performs about 95% of abortions in Iowa. Surgical and medical abortions may be obtained in clinics in Des Moines and Iowa City. Medication abortion is provided by clinics in other locations, including Ames, Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

Abortion Iowa
Marissa Messinger, of Lake View, Iowa, center, holds a sign during a rally to protest recent abortion bans, May 21, 2019, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Charlie Neibergall / AP

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