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Kansas referendum energizes Iowa abortion rights activists

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Reproductive Freedom rally-goers hold signs calling for reproductive freedom during a rally for reproductive freedom on Sunday, July 10, 2022, at Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines.

Iowa abortion rights activists celebrated the results of a Kansas ballot measure on abortion rights on Tuesday, when voters roundly rejected a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would remove protections for abortion, similar to an amendment Iowa voters may see on the ballot in 2024.

Advocates said the results of the referendum show that voters, even in conservative states, in rural areas, and across party lines, broadly support abortion rights even after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

April Clark, a board member of Iowa Abortion Access Fund, said she’s confident that Iowa voters would not support an amendment removing abortion protections from the constitution if it came to a popular vote.

“I would love for this to go to a popular ballot vote in Iowa in 2024, because I think that we would have very similar results, if not even higher passage rate for it,” she said.

By a nearly 20 point margin, Kansas voters voted down the amendment on Tuesday, which would have changed Kansas’ constitution to explicitly say the constitution does not protect the right to abortion. Kansas’ Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that abortion protections were in place in the constitution.

Abortion is currently legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks, but the legal landscape has changed in the last four years. Opponents of abortion rights got renewed energy after the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, which overturned the federal right to an abortion that had been in place since 1973.

State legislators passed a resolution in 2021 that would amend the state constitution in a similar way to the Kansas proposal, to establish that there is no right to an abortion in Iowa. If the same amendment is passed in 2023 or 2024, it will go to a popular vote on the 2024 ballot.

The amendment came after a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision that found that Iowa’s constitution provides a fundamental right to abortion in the state, invalidating a law that required a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion.

This June, just a week before the federal decision, the court overruled its own 2018 ruling and allowed a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion to take effect, but it kept in place the “undue burden” standard that existed under federal law, maintaining some ability for courts to strike down abortion laws.

The court noted that the standard could be litigated further, depending on the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Now, Gov. Kim Reynolds is asking the court to again reconsider its standard for abortion laws, hoping the court will give the Legislature broader ability to regulate abortion.

But if Republicans hold onto control in the Legislature and pass the amendment again, abortion rights advocates say they’re hopeful that Iowa voters will reject the amendment.

“Advocates in Iowa should feel good that in a state where the voting demographics are similar, relatively conservative, red state, that voters can make and will make the right decision,” said Pete McRoberts, the policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Iowa and Kansas are somewhat similar electorally. Kansas has a Democratic governor, but the same party split among U.S. Senate and congressional seats as Iowa. In the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump won Kansas by 56% and Iowa by 53%.

According to the most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, a majority of Iowa voters think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, by a margin of 60% to 34%.

Jennifer Konfrst, the leader of the Iowa House Democrats, said if the measure ends up on the ballot in 2024, the party can learn lessons from how activists messaged around the measure in Kansas.

Organizations advocating against the Kansas amendment framed it as an extreme measure that took away rights, Konfrst said in a press conference Thursday.

“When you tell the truth, and when you tell voters what the impact of the constitutional amendment will be, voters respond in ways that line up with what we think is right for the state,” she said.

McRoberts said the results from Kansas are a clear picture that support for abortion rights crosses party boundaries. He said opponents of the amendment in Kansas succeeded by making it a nonpartisan issue based on rights.

“Kansas is a great example of people of different political views coming to the same conclusion on fundamental rights, and that's the takeaway,” he said.

Groups in support of abortion restrictions said they were disappointed that the measure in Kansas failed, but they hope Iowa’s leaders will continue to advance policies restricting access to abortion. Kristi Judkins, the executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said Reynolds has been appointing justices to the state’s Supreme Court that say Iowa’s constitution does not include a fundamental right to an abortion.

Reynolds nominated her fifth justice to the Supreme Court last week, filling the role of the last justice nominated by a Democrat on the court.

“These and other factors will be taken into consideration as pro-life Iowans, as always, seek the best strategies to protect mothers and pre-born children in our state,” Judkins said.

Will Iowa Republicans pass the amendment resolution again?

Iowa Republicans are not giving specifics when it comes to their plans for future abortion legislation, but leaders have vowed to continue pursuing limits on abortion. While abortion rights advocates said they expect Republicans to support the amendment next year, legal challenges pursued by Reynolds could further erode the protections the Supreme Court left in place in June before then.

“Iowa House Republicans are continuing to listen to Iowans and solicit their feedback on what steps they want to see the Legislature take regarding abortion next session,” Iowa House Republicans spokesperson Melissa Deatsch said in an email.

Konfrst said she hopes the amendment does not pass again before 2024, and she’s hoping Democrats fill enough seats, even without a majority, to defeat the amendment.

The amendment proposal passed the House in 2021 on a 53-46 vote, with three Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition. One of three House Republicans who voted against the measure, Rep. Jane Bloomingdale of Northwood, is running unopposed and will likely return to the House next year. The others were defeated in the June primary by incumbents who supported the measure after being drawn into the same district.

Democrats see hope for midterms

While Iowans wouldn’t vote on the amendment until 2024, Democrats in Iowa are seeing the results from Kansas as an opportunity to draw support for the midterm elections.

“This is an issue that Democrats are in line with the people on, and Republicans are not,” Konfrst said. “And it’s our job to remind Iowans of that. One party is here to protect your freedoms. One is trying to take it away. That's what we'll be talking about.”

Konfrst said the vote shows that abortion rights are popular even in counties that tend to vote Republican.

Linda Upmeyer, the co-chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, disagreed, saying in a statement that Iowa voters support Republicans’ efforts to limit abortion rights.

“While Democrats violently push for abortion on-demand and up until birth, Iowans are looking for leaders to protect innocent life,” she said.

She said in the midterms, voters will be focused more on inflation and economic issues, which have been front and center in Republican campaigns this year, rather than on abortion.

It isn’t clear whether support for abortion rights will translate to support for Democrats in November. Of the 60% of Iowans that said they support abortion rights in all or most cases in the July Iowa Poll, 24% said they would vote for Reynolds, who is currently seeking to reinstate a measure to ban abortions after six weeks.

“When Iowans cast their ballots this fall, they will not be supporting candidates who want to help Joe Biden tank the economy and unapologetically spend billions of taxpayer dollars,” Upmeyer said.


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