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Iowa Supreme Court allows enforcement of six-week abortion ban

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Iowa’s highest court ruled last Friday to prohibit abortions after six weeks. 

In a 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court permitted a six-week abortion ban to take effect, adding to a chain of legal disputes over abortion access in Iowa. 

The divided court removed a 2023 Polk County district court injunction, effectively blocking the enforcement of the state’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which bars abortions after any “cardiac activity” can be detected in the fetus. Such activity most often presents itself at the six-week mark in a person’s pregnancy. Most women discover they are pregnant around five and a half weeks gestation, according to a 2017 CDC study on the average timing of pregnancy awareness. 

The law permits a few exceptions for incest, rape, unsurvivable fetal abnormalities or to save the life of the pregnant person.  To qualify for an exception, a rape resulting in pregnancy must be reported to law enforcement or a health professional within 45 days, and within 140 days in cases of incest. 

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the Emma Goldman Clinic, the ACLU of Iowa and Dr. Sarah Traxler, the chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood North Central States, brought forward the lawsuit. They named Governor Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Board of Medicine as defendants. 

The ruling removes legal barriers for future abortion restrictions by undoing legal precedent of applying substantive due process — the ability to protect certain constitutional rights from government interference. 

On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court held that rational basis review, not substantive due process, is the standard that applies to abortion restrictions. Rational basis review is the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny, which the court’s dissenting opinion noted is the same level of scrutiny applied to traffic camera laws. 

Planned Parenthood made the case that Iowa should instead adopt the intermediate undue burden test, though the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that standard in the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Justice Matthew McDermott, a Reynolds appointee, wrote Friday’s majority decision. He argued that “Planned Parenthood’s substantive due process challenge fails” and that the district court “erred in granting the temporary injunction.”

Justices Christopher McDonald, Dana Oxley and David May also ruled in favor of effecting the six-week abortion ban. 

In ruling that the six-week abortion ban does not violate Iowa’s constitutional substantive due process guarantee, the Iowa Supreme Court has effectively remanded the case back to district court, which is directed to dissolve the injunction. Under Iowa rules of appellate procedure, the injunction cannot be officially lifted for a minimum of 21 days, during which abortion up to 20 weeks will remain legal. 

Justice Susan Christensen, another Reynolds appointee, wrote the court’s dissenting opinion, stating that the ruling “strips Iowa women of their bodily autonomy.” Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman also dissented. 

Christensen argued that the ruling is a “giant step backward” and “raises concerns about the stability of other rights we consider fundamental.”

Recent Iowa abortion  legislation and rulings

Though each of the seven justices were nominated by Republican governors, since 2022 nearly all of them have expressed varying opinions and legal approaches regarding abortion access. 

In 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court called abortion a fundamental right and blocked the so-called “fetal heartbeat” law under the strict scrutiny standard. However, the more conservative 2022 court reversed their prior precedent but did not indicate the appropriate constitutional standard for abortion access. 

After the federal Dobbs decision, the state moved in 2023 to vacate the permanent injunction that blocked Iowa’s 2018 abortion law. But the district judge refused, arguing that under the previous year’s decision, undue burden still stands. (Undue burden guarantees that the legislature cannot create a law that is too restrictive of an individual’s fundamental rights.)

Reynolds appealed the 2023 ruling. Soon after, the Iowa Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3, with Justice Oxley recused. Though she did not state the reason for recusal, Oxley previously worked at a law firm that represented an abortion clinic. The deadlock affirmed the district court’s ruling and thus the injunction stayed. 

Reynolds called an unprecedented one-day special session last summer in response to the tied decision. Iowa legislators again passed the abortion ban.

In the past eight years, there have been six cases labeled “Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Kim Reynolds.” The governor remains staunch in her anti-abortion position. 

“There is no right more sacred than life, and nothing more worthy of our strongest defense than the innocent unborn,” Reynolds said in a statement following Friday’s ruling. 

“Iowa voters have spoken clearly through their elected representatives, both in 2018 when the original heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, and again in 2023 when it passed by an even larger margin,” Reynolds continued. “I’m glad that the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld the will of the people of Iowa.”

A “new reality” for Iowa

At the beginning of a press conference following Friday’s ruling, the sentiment among the women’s rights group representatives became clear: “Today’s decision marks a dark moment in Iowa’s history,” said Ruth Richardson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States. 

Richardson added that the court has flexed their newfound power to strip women of their bodily autonomy in this “moment of manufactured chaos and confusion.” 

“I want to make it clear: Planned Parenthood isn’t going anywhere,” Richardson said. The clinics will follow the new law once it takes effect, said Richardson, and will continue to provide abortion care if there is no detectable cardiac activity. 

Both Richardson and Francine Thompson, executive director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, said they had been preparing for this moment since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “We’re angry but we’re not blindly furious,” said Thompson. 

“The courts and politicians have no place in our exam rooms, no place in our bedrooms, or around our kitchen tables or wherever we make personal family decisions,” Thompson continued. “My three granddaughters now have less reproductive access than I did.”

Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said that the court’s decision will result in “unjust obstacles to care” for pregnant individuals in Iowa who might leave the state to seek an abortion or face life-threatening health consequences.

“We are heartbroken by the court’s decision,” Austen said Friday. “This is not what Iowans want.”

Lynn Evans has a different view. Evans, a state senator representing Iowa’s third district, said he believes the courts ruled correctly on Friday. “Every child is a gift and I hope that more people would look at it like that,” Evans told the Times-Pilot on Monday. “We should be protecting that unborn child.”

Evans added that “We have to continue to work for supports for women and young mothers so that it reduces the need for abortion.” Evans said these supports might include making adoption services “easier and more available.” He also advocated for the More Options for Maternal Support (MOMS) program, a faith-based nonprofit aimed at promoting “improved pregnancy outcomes, including reducing abortions, by helping women practice sound health-related behaviors and improve prenatal nutrition.” 

Governor Reynolds has also championed family planning as a means to reduce abortions. “As the heartbeat bill finally becomes law, we are deeply committed to supporting women in planning for motherhood, and promoting fatherhood and its importance in parenting,” she said. “We will continue to develop policies that encourage strong families, which includes promoting adoption and protecting in vitro fertilization (IVF).”

According to Megan Jones, an Iowa state representative for district six, Iowa is “a pro-life and pro-family state.” Jones said she has backed many adoption bills during her time in the legislature, “including introducing the state’s adoption tax credit and opening the State Public Defender’s office to facilitate the legal fees for adoptions.”

Jones said she supports the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling and will “continue the work we’ve already done to expand access to affordable childcare, extend postpartum coverage on Medicaid and improve our foster care and adoption systems.”

Since the Dobbs decision, Richardson said Planned Parenthood North Central States has helped nearly 4,000 Iowans find abortion services. “It is really those who don’t have the means or the opportunity to be able to travel for care that are going to be harmed the most by this,” Richardson said. 

Richardson, Thompson and Bettis Austen all said that following Friday’s decision, they feared the costliness and often extensive travel now required to seek an abortion outside of Iowa. 

“We reject this new reality,” said Richardson. “It’s unconscionable.”

“We’re focused and we’re ready to continue the battle,” said Thompson. 

Eighteen states have banned all or most abortions, affecting more than a third of American women ages of 15-44, according to a Washington Post analysis. Voters in Florida, Colorado and South Dakota will consider abortion rights ballot measures during fall elections. 

Leaders at the ACLU of Iowa, Planned Parenthood and the Emma Goldman Clinic refrained from stating whether or how they would take further legal action against the six-week ban. 

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