New abortion battle looming at Iowa Capitol
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New abortion battle looming at Iowa Capitol

From the ICYMI: Stories from the weekend you might have missed series
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Iowa Condition of the State

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan 14. 

DES MOINES — With a Marine Corps’ “oorah,” lawmakers on both sides of the issue are girding for a new battle over abortion during their election-year session of the Iowa Legislature.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds fired the first salvo during her Condition of the State address by telling legislators Tuesday that “it’s time and, unfortunately, it’s necessary” for them to protect the unborn by starting the process of amending Iowa’s constitution to make clear it “does not grant a right to an abortion.”

Her call for the new strategy against abortion rights — coming after a judge struck down an attempt she signed into law last year — drew a prolonged standing ovation from Republicans, who hold majorities of 32-18 in the Iowa Senate and 53-47 in the Iowa House.

And it was punctuated by Rep. Steve Holt’s “oorah” battle cry, picked up in a statewide broadcast of the speech.

Holt, a Denison Republican, said his spontaneous outburst was prompted by his appreciation for the governor’s highlighting the issue and the need for lawmakers to respond to what some see as a “radical overreach” of judges to create an abortion right not specified in the Iowa Constitution.

“When the Iowa Supreme Court overturned our 72-hour waiting period and our legislation that prevented abortion after the heart beat is detected, they created a fundamental right to abortion subject to strict scrutiny in the Iowa Constitution — an even higher standard than the federal government has imposed,” Holt said in an interview.

In 2018, a divided Iowa Supreme Court struck down the law requiring a waiting period, saying it violated the right to equal protection under the Iowa Constitution. The court ruled it applied the standard of “strict scrutiny” in weighing the question of abortion rights to ensure the statute was “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.”

Senate Republicans wasted no time, using the session’s first week that generally is marked by speeches, ceremony and administrative chores to launch Senate Joint Resolution 21 — legislation seeking to bring the issue directly to Iowa voters as early as the 2022 general election.

The language of the resolution — which would have to pass in the exact same form both this year and by the next General Assembly elected in November before it could be placed on the 2022 ballot — declares the Iowa Constitution “shall not be construed to recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.”

Drew Zahn, communications director for the Family Leader, said the language is modeled after similar constitutional amendments in Alabama, Rhode Island, Tennessee and West Virginia and being considered this year in Louisiana.

Abortion opponents rebuffed by Iowa’s courts now are focused on the state constitutional battle. The 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision threw into question whether any legislation limiting abortion rights would withstand the strict scrutiny standard.

“It extended far beyond the scope of Roe v. Wade,” Zahn said. “By creating a fundamental right that cannot be limited except by ‘strict scrutiny,’ what the court did was set a standard so high that very few restrictions could stand, and it opens up Iowa to virtually unlimited abortion at any time for any reason. ... If that precedent is allowed to stand, we could see Iowa become the most unrestricted, liberal abortion state in the country.”

Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a New York research organization that studies reproductive health issues, said no state has a provision in its constitution that explicitly protects abortion rights and access. But some courts have ruled the state constitution protects abortion rights because of a right to privacy or a right to liberty.

What is happening in Iowa may be part of a trend toward a strategy of amending state constitutions to make it harder to strike down restrictions in court, she said.

But Nash noted there have been mixed results, with some states successfully amending their constitutions on specific abortion restrictions but efforts failing in others.

Forces supporting abortion rights view this year’s resolution as another manifestation of some politicians’ obsession with overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and having government intrude into medical decisions that should be made by Iowa women, their doctors and families.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, sat through the 25-second standing ovation that Reynolds received.

“We have got to get past this whole idea that women don’t have rights anymore to their own health care decisions,” she said. “That to me is just kind of appalling that people don’t understand that or would think that we would go back to the days when abortion was illegal and we had the back alleys and women were dying. To me, that just is a nonstarter and it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

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