Iowa Supreme Court weighs whether 6-week abortion ban can take effect

Iowa’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in a case that could decide the future of abortion in that state, the latest in a series of legal battles that threaten abortion access across the country during a historic election year.

At issue is a ban passed by the legislature last July that restricts the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, the point when fetal cardiac activity can be detected. Planned Parenthood and others immediately sued to block the law and won a preliminary injunction from a lower court.

During the hour-long hearing in Des Moines, the justices on Iowa’s highest court quizzed lawyers for each side on how the state’s past abortion rulings — which in recent years narrowed protections for abortion — apply to the pending law. They questioned whether the case should be sent back to the district court for further arguments and review.

“Every justice on this court has recognized that the state plays a vital role in protecting unborn life. The legislature and the governor agree,” Solicitor General Eric Wessan said in his opening statement. He urged the seven justices, all of them Republican appointees, to rule so that the six-week ban can proceed.

For now, abortion remains legal in Iowa up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. The law, if upheld, would limit the procedure to a time frame in which many women don’t yet know they are pregnant. It has limited exceptions for rape and incest or if the woman’s life is in danger.

This latest legal battle comes at the end of a flurry of abortion developments nationwide that could have major implications for the presidential election in November.

On April 1, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution doesn’t protect abortion rights, paving the way for one of the country’s strictest bans to take effect May 1. This week, Arizona’s Supreme Court revived an 1864 law that forbids the procedure except to save a mother’s life — and punishes providers with jail time. The two states account for more than 95,000 abortions annually, data show.

Democrats, certain that abortion is a winning issue for them, are seeing a surge of political energy that they hope could put both states into play for them this fall. Florida voters will decide whether to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitution; a similar initiative appears headed for the ballot in Arizona, too.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump released a video this week saying that he believes abortion access should be left to the states — disappointing GOP conservatives who had hoped their presumptive presidential nominee would push for a federal ban.

A key factor in the outcome of the Iowa case will likely be how much protection the state constitution gives to abortion rights, said Todd Pettys, a University of Iowa law professor — unless the court agrees with the state’s argument that the abortion providers lack standing to sue on behalf of “pregnant women.”

In 2022, the court reversed an earlier ruling supportive of abortion rights after finding there was no basis in Iowa’s constitution for “a strongly protected right to an abortion,” Pettys noted. At the same time, the court said it should not be picking sides in a divisive political battle.

But the justices did allow a more stringent legal test for abortion restrictions, which Wessan argued Thursday should be abandoned for a lesser standard that would free the government to do as it pleased. Peter Im, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, has said that the district court ruled correctly and that the injunction should be upheld.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who is a staunch antiabortion advocate, brought the legislature into a special session last summer to pass the six-week ban. Though she has called the ban “the will of the people,” a majority of Iowans say abortion should be legal in most cases. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released last year found that 61 percent of residents believe it should be legal in most or all cases, with 35 percent opposed.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa and other groups held a “Rally for Reproductive Rights,” in advance of the oral arguments on Thursday, describing the case in a post on X as “essential to protecting the bodily autonomy and rights of Iowans.”

The district court judge who enjoined the six-month ban still allowed the rulemaking process on the new law to move forward. The rules that Iowa’s Board of Medicine subsequently adopted have been criticized for being too vague and lacking specifics about when doctors can legally step in to save the life of a pregnant patient or how providers who violate the new law would be sanctioned.

“There’s nothing in the Iowa law or regulations that would avoid what we’ve seen around the rest of the country, with women nearly dying or actually dying because the law is unclear,” Sally Frank, a law professor at Drake University, said in an interview this week. “It’s got the same problems of these other regulations and statutes — particularly with women with wanted pregnancies who face complications.”

Since the fall of Roe v. Wade in 2022, voters around the country have consistently upheld abortion access at the ballot box, even in conservative states like Kansas and Ohio. In addition to Florida, the issue is already on the ballot in Maryland and New York, and citizen-led drives are underway in Arkansas, Colorado and Missouri as well as Arizona.

In 2020, the Iowa legislature passed the first round of a proposal to amend the state’s constitution to specify that it “does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion.” The American Civil Liberties Union in Iowa has warned that lawmakers could still could pass a final measure this year that would lead to a ballot question in November.

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