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Key Information about Iowa’s Upcoming Abortion Ban


[Iowa’s GOP-controlled legislature is gathering for a special session on abortion Tuesday — and Republicans are racing to pass a new law banning most abortions at roughly six weeks by the end of the day.

Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) initiated the legislative sprint last week, calling state lawmakers back for a rare special session for the “sole purpose” of enacting new restrictions on abortion. The reason why is clear: Last month, the state Supreme Court deadlocked on whether to reinstate a similar 2018 law, effectively preventing the ban from taking effect.

If GOP lawmakers pass a new ban, the move would significantly narrow the window for legal abortions in the state, where abortions are currently allowed until 22 weeks of pregnancy.

What new abortion restrictions are GOP lawmakers pursuing?

Republicans are planning to vote on legislation to ban most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected at roughly six weeks.

The measure includes a few exceptions, such as for rape and incest as long as the cases are reported to law enforcement. It also includes exceptions for fetal abnormalities that are “incompatible with life” and medical emergencies when the woman’s life or serious health is at stake.

Abortion rights advocates are vowing to fight the measure. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa have planned a rally in the Capitol rotunda for midday and are encouraging abortion supporters to speak out against the ban.

On the other side, antiabortion groups say they’re hopeful the Republican-dominated legislature will quickly pass the new restrictions — and that the courts will allow the ban to stand.

How is this ban different from what the state Supreme Court struck down in June?

It’s almost identical language – and includes similar exceptions to the bill passed in 2018.

There are some small changes. One is a wording change in the section that describes the exceptions to the ban. The 2018 used the word “medically necessary” to describe some of the exemptions. But the 2023 bill describes them as “fetal heartbeat exceptions.”

The other difference is the speed at which the ban would be implemented; back in 2018 the legislature passed the ban in May and it was slated to go into effect on July 1st, giving the Iowa Board of Medicine some time to spell out specific rules for how the ban would be enforced. This time, the legislation would go into effect as soon as the governor signs the bill.

The 2018 ban was struck down. So why are Iowa Republicans trying to pass essentially the same law again?

They see an opening, and here’s why. A state judge ruled the 2018 ban unconstitutional – and the state didn’t challenge that ruling. But after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Reynolds asked a district court to reinstate the law. After the district court declined to do so, the governor appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court – and last month it issued a 3-3 decision on the matter, which meant the law couldn’t go into effect.

So Republicans view that decision as a procedural move, and they’re hoping that by passing a new ban in the post-Roe era they’ll be able to ban abortions very early in pregnancy.

Peter McRoberts, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which strongly opposes the legislation, said he was surprised and disappointed to see that Republicans didn’t expand the number of exceptions on their ban beyond what they allowed in the 2018 version.

“What I don’t understand is in the year since Dobbs, why didn’t they look at what they’ve learned since then?” he said, referencing some news reports of women who were denied abortions despite experiencing severe medical complications.

How could the legislature pass the measure in just one day?

Reynolds convened a special session which started Tuesday morning with committee hearings in both the House and Senate. Both chambers are then slated to debate identical versions of the bills in the afternoon and into the evening.

Activists on both sides of the aisle say they expect final passage of the legislation by midnight Eastern time, which is when debate on the measure is supposed to end. In order to move speedily through the process, lawmakers are expected to waive procedural rules, like a requirement for bills to be made public for a certain length of time before they’re voted on.

How will a new ban change abortion access in Iowa?

Immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, a wave of bans in conservative states kicked in. In others, injunctions were quickly lifted on bills deemed unenforceable before the nation’s highest court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

But that wasn’t the case in Iowa.

Its 2018 ban hasn’t gone into effect to the frustration of Republicans and antiabortion advocates. That’s meant abortion has remained legal up until 22 weeks of pregnancy.

However, the rate of abortions in the state has declined slightly since before the June 2022 ruling, according to data from the Society of Family Planning, which supports abortion rights.

Mazie Stilwell, the director of public affairs at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, attributed this dynamic to the “uncertainty and fear” created by the nation’s new patchwork of abortion laws. She said an increase of patients have headed to Minnesota, for instance, which moved to shore up access to the procedure in the past year.

Do other states have bans on abortion this early in pregnancy?

A few years ago, a wave of conservative-leaning states — such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio — passed abortion bans after fetal cardiac activity has been detected. However, some of those states had restrictions earlier in pregnancy set to kick in if the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

Georgia currently has a similar ban in place, while such limits are blocked by the courts in states like South Carolina and Ohio. Florida governor and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis signed a law banning most abortions after six weeks earlier this year, touting it as a sign of his conservative bona fides, but it won’t take effect unless the state’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court approves Florida’s existing 15-week ban.

Some antiabortion advocates view such bans as a step toward banning nearly all abortions.

“While this is a good first step in moving forward, we’re going to continue our work and our advocacy to protect all human life,” Maggie DeWitte, the executive director of Pulse Life Advocates, an antiabortion group in Iowa.


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