Iowa Legislature passes legislation to outlaw most abortions after six weeks

By: and - July 12, 2023 10:19 am
A group of protestors in the Iowa State Capitol holding signs saying "Defund Planned Parenthood" and "Personhood Now."

Iowans who oppose abortion rights rally July 11, 2023 in the Iowa Capitol rotunda. (Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature, in a daylong special legislative session, passed legislation late Tuesday to outlaw most abortions in Iowa after six weeks of gestation.

The House adjourned just after 9 p.m. Tuesday after sending House File 732 to the Senate with a vote of 56-34. Rep. Zach Dieken, R-Granville, and Rep. Mark Cisneros, R-Muscatine, voted no and 10 House members were absent.

About two hours later, the Senate voted 32-17 to pass the bill, with one Republican, Sen. Mike Klimesh of Spillville, voting no. Abortion-rights supporters shouted from the gallery, causing the Senate president to ask troopers to eject them.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement she would sign the bill Friday, after which it will take effect immediately. She called the special session after the Iowa Supreme Court, split 3-3, left in place an injunction that blocked enactment of a nearly identical 2018 law.

“The Iowa Supreme Court questioned whether this legislature would pass the same law they did in 2018, and today they have a clear answer,” Reynolds said in a statement. “The voices of Iowans and their democratically elected representatives cannot be ignored any longer, and justice for the unborn should not be delayed.”

The bill would prohibit abortion after embryonic cardiac activity can be detected, usually as early as six weeks after conception. The bill contains exceptions for rape or incest reported within a certain period of time to law enforcement or a medical professional, or for the life of the pregnant patient.

“Mr. President, this bill ensures all life is protected when a heartbeat is detected,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said in opening remarks on the bill. “The child in her mother’s womb has her own heartbeat, her own DNA. She’s a baby, and she deserves the same protections as any other baby in the state.”

Democrats in both chambers offered amendments and argued in favor of broadening the exceptions, without success.

Republicans defeated amendments to eliminate the requirement that rape or incest must be reported to authorities and to create an exception for pregnant patients age 12 or younger or with mental health conditions or a developmental disability.

Although the bill does include exceptions for rape and incest, the bill specifies a 45-day limit for a rape to be reported or 140 days for incest to be reported for the crime to qualify as an exception to the abortion prohibition.

Democrats in both chambers tried to eliminate the reporting limit.

“I am appreciative that the current bill acknowledges that the survivors of rape and incest have an option, I would just like it to be a little less restrictive,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst D-Polk, said during floor debate.

Women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest often do not feel safe reporting it, lawmakers said.

“We know, folks, that women who are the survivors of rape and incest, for a myriad of reasons, including fear for their own safety, are not able to safely report rape or incest and therefore, the law as it is currently written, would be forcing these women to carry out their pregnancy because they were not able to safely report what happened,” Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines, a physician, said.

Democrats in both chambers also attempted, unsuccessfully, to include mental health concerns as an exception.

“The number one cause of pregnancy-related death in the United States is related to mental health, suicide or substance overdose,” Baeth said.

Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Dubuque, the bill’s floor manager, responded by saying, “I would like to recognize that abortion isn’t a treatment for mental illness. Obviously if we have someone whose life is in danger, a doctor should take an approach to make sure they immediately refer them to inpatient care.”

Debate in the Senate was contentious almost from the beginning.

“Senator Sinclair, don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining,” Sen. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, said at one point during debate, prompting a call for decorum from Sen. Brad Zaun, who was presiding.

At another point, a Democratic senator objected to Sinclair repeatedly referring to their talking points as “lies.”

“I would love to not use the word ‘lie,’” Sinclair responded, to derisive laughter from the opposite side of the chamber.

Later, Zaun threatened to remove anyone causing a disturbance in the public gallery.

In the House, Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hampton, said he was impressed with the camaraderie shown by the representatives. Even so, Rep. Jeff Cooling, D-Cedar Rapids, drew an objection when he suggested on the House floor that the session was a result of special interests.

“We’re here today because special interests, some would say, are running the state and controlling the governor, some would say that. So this special interest session…,” Cooling said before a point of order was called.

“So it’s my belief that our time here today is neither fiscally responsible to the taxpayer, nor will the result of what we do here today lead to responsible government,” Cooling continued. “I believe that this session is all about power and politics, and I believe I was elected to represent people, not special interests.”

Lawmakers get personal

Lawmakers of both parties brought their personal stories to the debate.

Rep. Luana Stoltenberg, R-Davenport, said she was standing up for mothers who have died or are infertile as a result of an abortion.

“I’d like to speak up for my three children who lost their life and died by abortion,” Stoltenberg said. “I’d like to speak up for the 65 million plus other children that died by abortion and will never get to speak. I’d like to speak up for the women who have been hurt by abortion and are too ashamed and too filled with guilt to be able to speak.

“I was told that it was just a blob of tissue, that it was easy and it was safe. That was a lie. Those abortions caused me not to be able to have children. Every day I live with the reality that I killed the only children I would ever have,” she said.

Stoltenberg said uterine damage and infertility can happen as a result of abortions and shared stories of other mothers who have been harmed by abortions. “We do not have a constitutional right in the state of Iowa to kill our children,” she concluded.

Weiner, arguing that exceptions should be expanded to include mental health conditions, said she is raising her 5-year-old grandchild because her daughter has a mental health condition.

“She’s an addict, and she has serious mental health challenges and diagnosis so the irony is that right now under this bill, based on her addiction, based on her purposely and knowingly ingesting or injecting something, she would have a choice. Based on the mental health challenges that most likely led to and exacerbated her addiction, she would not have a choice,” Weiner said.

Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, whose late daughter had developmental disabilities, offered an amendment seeking to expand the exceptions under the bill to pregnant patients with a developmental disability. She said sexual abuse victims with developmental disabilities are taught to trust their abusers.

“That was one of my biggest fears as a mom – biggest fear — that so many of the adults with disabilities are such trusting people,” Jochum said. “And no, they don’t understand what’s going on. And yes, we have a duty to protect them.”

Sinclair said because people with severe developmental disabilities are unable to consent to sex, they would be covered under the exception for rape. But Jochum said that was a “flimsy excuse.”

She said the abuse is unlikely to be reported. “If you can’t consent, how can you report?”

One Republican, Sen. Carrie Koelker of Dyersville, voted in favor of the amendment, which failed on a vote of 17-32.

What’s the penalty?

The bill specifies that women who obtain an abortion in violation of the law would face no civil or criminal penalties. But lawmakers in both chambers argued over whether the bill was clear or vague and what might happen to doctors who violate the law.

Baeth said, as a doctor, he does not know where to draw the line on the definition of “medical emergency.” The law is not specific enough to give doctors confidence they will be free from punishment from the Board of Medicine, he said.

Baeth said he was worried a patient would have to be already in critical condition to receive an abortion, because doctors are concerned they will break the law if they provide care too soon.

“I have great concerns that the current exceptions are actually extremely narrow and strict because they only apply to somebody in whom because of pregnancy they would develop potentially, and quickly,” Baeth said. “It’s critical illness and death, actually they must be in critical illness and near death to receive those services.”

The bill states the Board of Medicine is directed to adopt administrative rules to administer the bill. Normally, administrative rules have to be enacted within 90 days after a bill is signed into law. Since the bill is effective immediately upon enactment, rules are not yet established.

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, asked Lundgren multiple times how the bill will be enforced, considering its quick passage.

In multiple instances, Lundgren was asked what would happen to a doctor if the law is violated.

Lundgren responded each time that “the Board of Medicine will determine those rules,” providing no more information to the body.

In the Senate, Sinclair said repeatedly she could not predict what rules the board would enact, but said she believes the bill text is clear enough that rules may not be needed. “Rules are not necessary for this bill to go into effect,” she said.

Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, a pharmacist, said the Board of Medicine will have a hard time creating rules.

“I think they’re [the Board of Medicine] going to have a difficult time interpreting really what type of action should be taken if a physician does make a mistake and not make the right decision he thinks is proper for that patient,” Forbes said.

Iowans pack the Capitol

A large number of protestors, holding pro and anti-abortion rights signs, in a large rotunda.
Hundreds of Iowans rally in the Iowa Capitol rotunda July 11, 2023 during a special legislative session on abortion. (Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Hundreds of Iowans packed the State Capitol on Tuesday to express their views on the legislation.

The Iowa House Health and Human Services Committee hosted a public hearing on House Study Bill 255 and the Senate State Government Committee heard public comments during a subcommittee meeting on its identical version of the bill, Senate Study Bill 1223.

As hearings were underway in two meeting rooms, hundreds gathered in the Capitol rotunda with signs and participated in chants, muffling the voices of those speaking inside. Chants of “Vote them out” and “Hey hey, ho ho, abortion bans have got to go” rang in the halls outside of the room.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy joined the crowd after meeting with Reynolds.

“The judicial branch here got it wrong but the people of this country – people of this state – put Kim Reynolds in office and put those legislators in both chambers of the Legislature to actually reflect the will of the people. And that’s what we’re celebrating,” Ramaswamy said.

Lori Van Lo of West Des Moines, who was standing nearby, interjected that 60% of Iowans don’t agree with an abortion ban.

“So, look, if you want to vote for somebody else, you have the power to do that,” Ramaswamy responded.

During both hearings, advocates from both sides of the issue shared their stories, citing religion, bodily autonomy and clarity of the bill’s enforcement.

Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Pulse Life Advocates, said during the House hearing that she testified in front of legislators to prevent abortions in 2018.

“This has been a long time coming,” DeWitte said. “I testified at our heartbeat bill in 2018, and here we are again. It is beyond time to once and for all have this heartbeat law passed, for the second time, signed into law for the second time, but now will be able to be enforced.”

Advocates that have spoken out against the passing of this bill have threatened to take the law to court if enacted.

Francesca Turner, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, asked lawmakers for better guidance from the bill.

“Using medically inaccurate language is confusing and dangerous,” Turner said. “The words in the bill should be very specific and accurate. These words matter and facts are important.”

Turner asked the committee members: “At what point will your wife or your daughter, who is having a medical emergency related to pregnancy, do I get to save her life? At what point do I get to intervene? It is unclear in this bill.”

“Pregnancy is too complicated to legislate,” Turner said. “I support the rights of patients to choose medical care that is best for them, and help them access care without government interference.”

Speakers cite religion

A majority of speakers in favor of the bill referred to their religion. John Lamb, a pastor speaking for Lutheran Family Service, emphasized during the Senate hearing that he believes life begins at conception. “A new and unique human being comes into existence,” he said. “… So I want to remind everyone that when we talk about heartbeat, we’re not talking about the heartbeat of something, but the heartbeat of someone.”

Some who opposed the bill also cited their religion.

Sally Frank, who said she was an active member of the Jewish community, said that the law does not allow her to practice religion.

“Under Jewish life, human life begins at birth. While the fetus has value, its value is far below the human lives of the living people, including those who are pregnant.”

“Abortion is part of good health care and forced birth is not,” Frank said.

Rev. Brigit Stevens, a regional minister for the United Church of Christ, spoke on behalf of Black, indigenous people of color and LGBTQ Iowans.

“Abortion will not go away, it will go underground, and let’s be frank, straight white men with money will still be able to get abortions for their wives, their daughters and their girlfriends,” Stevens said. “And other people of color, Black, indigenous folks and LGBTQ Iowans will continue to die at exponentially higher rates than white Iowans. Mothers will die and babies will die.”

Loras College student Grace Van Petten said she used to be pro-choice and she now believes women her age are misinformed about abortion. “We have many young women like my younger self convinced that abortion is needed or necessary,” she said, and that abortion is “the removal of just a clump of cells.”

House Democrats presented four amendments in committee regarding extending postpartum Medicaid, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and access to contraception and accessibility to child care. They all failed on party-line votes. Both bills passed their respective committees on party-line votes.

Both the House and Senate majority parties passed rules for the special session that limited debate in committees and on the floor. House leadership planned to halt debate at 10 p.m. and move immediately to a vote. The Senate’s debate was set to end at 11 p.m.

Democrats in the House and Senate objected to limiting debate on the legislation.

“When you make a decision, Senator Whitver, to change the rules and democracy, to cut and muzzle the voices of Iowa women and those who love them and stand for them, you’re showing what Iowa looks like. That’s a dictatorship,” Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said, addressing Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver during debate of chamber rules for the special session.

Sinclair pushed back at the criticism that the process has been rushed, saying during the subcommittee meeting the language was identical to the legislation debated at length and passed in 2018. “We are not here for one day, we are here for five years,” she said during opening comments of the Senate’s subcommittee meeting on the bill. “In fact, I would suggest that perhaps this has gone on too long, given the nature of the contents of the law.”

What’s in the bill

The 2018 bill made most abortions after six weeks illegal. Under current law, abortions up to 20 weeks are legal in Iowa.

Medical professionals would be mandated to check for a “detectable fetal heartbeat” under the proposed bill, and then must inform the pregnant woman that an abortion is prohibited if embryonic cardiac activity is detected. The woman then must sign the document confirming her ineligibility for an abortion.

The bill allows exceptions for abortions after detected embryonic cardiac activity in a case of rape if the case was reported to law enforcement or a health agency within 45 days and within 140 days for cases of incest.

The only way to receive an abortion after the 20-week mark is if a physician determines there is a medical emergency.

The bill defines a medical emergency as “a situation in which an abortion is performed to preserve the life of the pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness or physical injury including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy, but not including psychological conditions, emotional conditions, familial conditions or the woman’s age; or when continuation of the pregnancy will create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairments of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

Liability for an abortion does not fall on the mother, according to the proposed bill.

“The bill is not to be construed to impose civil or criminal liability on a woman upon whom an abortion is performed in violation of the division. The board of medicine is directed to adopt administrative rules to administer the bill.”

The legislation takes effect immediately upon enactment by the governor’s signature, which means rules to administer the bill would not yet be established.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.