Iowa lawmakers pass ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion bill

Iowa lawmakers pass ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion bill
Republican lawmakers with control of the Iowa statehouse fast-tracked a bill early Wednesday that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy. (The Associated Press)

DES MOINES (AP) — Republican legislators sent Iowa’s governor a bill early Wednesday that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy, propelling the state overnight to the front of a push among conservative statehouses jockeying to enact the nation’s most-restrictive regulations on the procedure.

Critics say the so-called “heartbeat” bill, which now awaits the signature of anti-abortion GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, would ban the medical procedure before some women even know they’re pregnant. That could set up the state for a legal challenge over its constitutionality, including from the same federal appeals court that two years ago struck down similar legislation approved in Arkansas and North Dakota.

Backers of the legislation, which failed to get a single Democratic vote in either Iowa chamber, expressed hope it could challenge Roe vs. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established women have a right to terminate pregnancies until a fetus is viable. Conservatives say an influx of conservative judicial appointments under President Donald Trump could make it a possibility.

“Today we will begin this journey as Iowa becomes ground zero, now nationally, in the life movement,” Sen. Rick Bertrand, a Republican from Sioux City, said during the floor debate.

Marion Miner, the Nebraska Catholic Conference association director of pro-life and family, said it’s too early to say whether Nebraska should follow suit.

He said the organization, which lobbies on behalf of the Catholic church, has not set its legislative priorities for next year and will be watching the Iowa legislation closely.

“We’re really grateful to see life-affirming legislation pass,” Miner said. “But how things are going to shake out in the courts is really important to us.”

Nebraska Right to Life would work with anyone who introduced a similar proposal in Nebraska, said Executive Director Julie Schmit-Albin. But she said the group plans to focus on other priorities in concert with National Right to Life.

“Our strategy is to pursue legislation that doesn’t just make a statement but has a true impact,” such as the budget language barring Title X funds from Planned Parenthood, she said.

Under current law, Nebraska bans almost all abortions once a fetus reaches 20 weeks after fertilization. The only exceptions are to protect a woman’s life or prevent major physical problems.

Erin Davison-Rippey, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, called the Iowa legislation “an embarrassment” and “a blemish” on the state of Iowa.

“By passing an intentionally unconstitutional bill, Iowa Republicans have declared that they do not care about the foundational values of our state, or Iowa’s future,” she said. “They do not care how much taxpayer money will be spent on a lawsuit, they don’t care how many women’s lives will be damaged because of inadequate access to care, or how many families may choose to go elsewhere because Iowa is no longer a state where they are safe to live and work.”

She called on Reynolds to veto the measure, saying it was “intentionally unconstitutional” and will end up costing the state money for a lawsuit.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland operates clinics in both Nebraska and Iowa.

The organization fought unsuccessfully this year to keep language out of the Nebraska budget barring federal Title X family planning dollars from going to organizations that provide abortions.

The Iowa House began debate over the measure early Tuesday afternoon, voting it out shortly before midnight with six Republicans there opposing it. The Senate then picked it up, with approval shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday. The nearly back-to-back votes come as lawmakers seek to pass a state budget and tax cuts later this week.

Although Reynolds hasn’t said publicly if she’ll sign the bill into law, press secretary Brenna Smith said in an email the governor “is 100 percent pro-life and will never stop fighting for the unborn.”

Several states have attempted to advance abortion bans in recent years. Mississippi passed a law earlier this year banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, but it’s on hold after a court challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear similar heartbeat bills North Dakota and Arkansas approved in 2013 that were rejected by the appeals court.

The Iowa legislation contains some exemptions, including allowing abortions after a detectable heartbeat to save a pregnant woman’s life or in some cases of rape and incest. Another provision prohibits some uses of fetal tissue, with exemptions for research. A woman would have to report a rape within 45 days to law enforcement or a physician to qualify for an exemption to the abortion ban. Incest must be reported within 140 days to receive an exemption.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, said that “absolutely nothing” would stop a “desperate” woman from lying to a physician, who cannot investigate whether a pregnancy is the result of incest and cannot report it to law enforcement. Conversely, she said a child who is raped but delays reporting it until showing signs of pregnancy could be denied an abortion.

“Children who have been brutally raped, who are scared to death, who have little tiny bones and may be forcing their rapist’s baby out of there is not in their best interest — too bad for them under this law,” Wolfe said.

The bill provides immunity to women receiving abortions but not to doctors who perform them. Their licenses could be revoked for violations, and prosecutors could consider criminal charges against them. That’s not addressed by the bill.

Republicans at the Iowa Capitol have long sought to approve legislation that would further restrict abortion, and their flip of the state Senate chamber in the 2016 election gave them a trifecta of GOP power for the first time in nearly 20 years. Last session, they passed a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, which is in effect.

A provision in that legislation requiring a three-day waiting period for abortions — among the longest wait periods in the country — was challenged in court. It remains on hold amid litigation being considered by the State Supreme Court.

Iowa Republicans have long said the 20-week ban was just the start.

“A baby has become something we can throw away. This bill says it’s time to change the way we think about unborn life,” said Rep. Sandy Salmon, a Janesville Republican.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

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