DES MOINES — On the day earlier this month Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a “fetal heartbeat” bill banning most abortions into law, abortion-rights advocates vowed they would see her in court to challenge the prohibition.
Tuesday, they made good on that promise.
Representatives from Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the Emma Goldman Clinic of Iowa City held a joint news conference to announce they are challenging the constitutionality of Senate File 359, a measure slated to take effect July 1 that would outlaw most abortions in Iowa once a fetal heartbeat is detected — normally after about six weeks of pregnancy.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Polk County District Court.
“This abortion ban is beyond extreme,” said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director. “In the 45 years since (Roe v. Wade), no federal or state court has upheld such a dangerous law.”
Bettis said the trio of groups is bringing the legal action in state court because the organizations believe Iowa’s constitutional protections for abortion rights set out in an earlier telemedicine case before the Iowa Supreme Court are “as strong if not more so” than the federal constitution. The groups’ attorneys will argue that the new abortion law violates equal protection clauses and women’s fundamental right to safe and legal abortion without “unnecessary interference by the government.”
They are seeking to have the law struck down as unconstitutional and requesting a temporary injunction be issued with an expedited hearing within 14 days as the case progresses.
“The complaint presents the medical facts that this law will make safe and legal abortion virtually disappear in Iowa,” said Alice Clapman, an attorney with Planned Parenthood Federation of America who will act as co-counsel with Bettis.
Advocates of what is considered to be the most restrictive abortion law in the country, which Reynolds signed May 4, say they expected the legislation to be challenged in court and are hoping the ensuing legal battle will be a vehicle to overturn the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
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“The lawsuit was expected, and the growing pro-life movement isn’t deterred by it,” said Drew Zahn, director of communications for the Family Leader organization. “In fact, we welcome the courts hearing the debate on the question of when life begins. It’s long overdue that America looked at the evidence and recognized that the little child in her mother’s womb … she’s a baby.”
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, previously indicated his office would disqualify itself and not represent the state in defense of the “heartbeat” law if a legal challenge was filed.
Tuesday, Republican Reynolds said the Thomas More Society, a faith-based legal organization based in Chicago, would represent her and the Iowa Board of Medicine as defendants at no cost to Iowa taxpayers.
“We feel very confident moving forward with it,” said Reynolds, who talked to reporters in Davenport after a Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce luncheon, “and so it’s important that, first of all, this is about life, it’s about protecting life and that’s first and foremost the priority, and we have somebody that has agreed to represent us and do it at no cost to the taxpayers.”
The legislation would require doctors to conduct an abdominal ultrasound to test for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected, a physician could not perform an abortion except in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality. The law would allow abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy in cases of rape if a women reports the crime within 45 days and in case of incest if the crime is reported within 140 days.
The bill does not specify criminal or civil penalties for those breaking the law. Earlier versions had called for felony charges against doctors, but not women seeking an abortion.
Critics of the bill argued it was poorly written with vague language creating uncertainty for doctors making medical decisions in the best interests of their patients, and would not pass constitutional muster — and, further, that it was offered only as a way to get the abortion issue back before the U.S. Supreme Court with the stated goal of overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
“We think it’s extreme and outrageous,” said Francine Thompson, co-director of the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City, the first outpatient abortion clinic in the state.
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Thompson told reporters the new law would be an “almost-complete ban” on abortions, as only about 2 percent of the abortions at her clinic are performed at or before the sixth week of a pregnancy.
“It’s a law that has been passed by politicians who are out of touch with the reality of women’s lives,” Thompson said. “We want politicians out of women’s lives and out of the exam room. This law must be struck down.”
Suzanna de Baca, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, called the “fetal heartbeat” provision a “de facto ban” on legal abortion that “would be the most-restrictive abortion ban in the country” if it were allowed to take effect.
Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Iowa previously brought a legal challenge to the constitutionality of a 72-hour waiting period for a woman to obtain an abortion that was approved during the 2017 legislative session and signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad.
The Iowa Supreme Court is expect to rule on that case in the near future.
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Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times contributed to this report.