A doomed law



We shall leave the profound questions of when life begins and its moral implications to the theologians, philosophers and members of the Iowa Legislature, who decided that it begins with a detectable heartbeat. The bill was passed, the most restrictive in the nation, and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed it into law. We might not know precisely where to come down at what stage of embryonic development. But we do know this much: Most Americans don’t know where to come down on it, either, and we have not been able to come to an agreement about it for more than a half-century.

The Republicans wanted a campaign issue. They could hardly talk about Medicaid reform. They lost hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and kicked the elderly out of nursing homes over it. Gov. Reynolds is a full supporter. So they had to find something else to go along with an ill-considered $400 million tax cut amid structural annual deficits of $100 million or more.

They went for broke. They went straight to abortion — after having first gutted collective bargaining for public employees, starving public education and killing the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

This despite the fact that the Iowa Conference of Catholic Bishops was not on board. They knew that this abortion bill likely would be found unconstitutional. They prefer legislative efforts that actually can succeed in protecting the unborn. Nobody has been working the issue politically longer than the Catholic bishops.

Many in Iowa think this will be the law that takes on Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that set up the trimester standard for viability. There have been many such cases. We note only that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush over 20 years had plenty of time to pack the court and overturn the 1972 opinion. It hasn’t happened.

There is a reason, we think. Depending on how the question is framed, most Americans in polls favor legal access to abortion with limits. Most Americans, for example, do not support third-trimester abortions except in the most extreme circumstance. In Iowa, it’s about half and half division over legal abortion. We doubt that most people want to restrict abortion at the moment a heartbeat can be detected on a fetal monitor.

That is the fundamental problem: This is a pluralistic society. We cannot agree on this issue, at all. That is why the status quo prevails. The court itself cannot find a way out of an intractable political problem.

Republicans could have chosen to restrict abortion further at the margins to follow public preferences. They decided they could not waste what they think is a mandate to move the nation to the right. That is a political, not a moral, calculation. It was a bad decision.

First, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are sure to sue. The case will be bound up in court long past the mid-term elections. It will stymie any productive legislation that helps vulnerable women and children.

Regardless of what you think of abortion, Democrats will be able to argue that instead of solving fiscal problems the GOP majority chose to pick a fight that Republicans hope will end up at the Supreme Court. When most voters uncomfortably support the status quo, the Republicans seek to upset a half-century of well-established law. Maybe that will work out in the November elections, if not in the courts over more time. It is the type of overreach — like eliminating the right of workers to bargain collectively — that will cause reasonable pro-life voters to ask if this is effective legislation or mere posturing to amp up the pro-life base. In this instance, not all the base is on the same page — the Catholics being a significant breech.

People of good conscience can ask themselves whether pro-life standards are honored by a GOP caucus that denies poor adequate health care, boots senior citizens from North Lake Manor, starves Faith, Hope & Charity, and refuses to let education have a budget that keeps pace with inflation. (And, a caucus that treats its own female staffers like cattle.) None of that is pro-life. Neither is the fetal heartbeat bill. It seeks only to leverage a political moment and does not empower women to affirm life. If you are truly pro-life, you can see it is a waste of time that does not solve the conditions that give rise to demand for abortion in the first place. We’re all against abortion. Some of us want to do something positive about it — like voting out the people who came up with this mean and doomed law.