Iowa House committee passes ban on abortion after 20 weeks, dropping 'heartbeat' measure

Change acknowledges that swifter ban not likely this legislative session

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DES MOINES — A day after proposing what opponents labeled the most extreme abortion restrictions in the nation, Iowa House Republicans dropped a proposal Wednesday to ban the procedure once a heartbeat is detected.

Dropping that in favor of prohibiting abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy was a response to constituents as well as concerns within the GOP caucus, Human Resources Committee Chairman Joel Fry, R-Osceola, said.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the House committee adopted the 20-week abortion ban amendment on a voice vote and approved the bill 11-8 with one Republican joining all of the Democrats in opposing it.

The bill, as amended, will have to win the support of the full House before returning to the Senate where a similar, but not identical, 20-week abortion ban was approved 32-17.

Fry and the bill manager, Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, rejected the idea the change was a political setback, emphasizing their version of Senate File 471 represents what’s possible this legislative session.

The bill is written in a way she believes will stand up in court, Lundgren said, “and we would be protecting about 51 babies a year by going this route. We are going to make an impact immediately.”

Although it would like more restrictive measures, the Iowa Catholic Conference agreed winning approval of a 20-week ban would be a victory likely to withstand legal challenge.

“We certainly support the concept and idea that life begins at conception, but I don’t think we’re there in the court system yet,” said Tom Chapman, who represents the conference. “Our interest is really in getting something that works and can stand up in courts and can be Iowa’s first abortion restriction in many years. I think that’s a good place for Iowa to start.”

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, welcomed the change but not for the same reason.

“Yesterday’s (heartbeat) bill was probably the most extreme bill I’ve ever seen,” said Wessel-Kroeschell, who has been fighting anti-abortion rights legislation for six years. “It’s still a bad bill, but this isn’t as bad as yesterday’s.”

Democrats, Wessel-Kroeschell said, were trying to decide if they could have an impact on SF 471.

“I think we have to save birth control in the state,” she said. “This does not save birth control. I think we have to save infertility treatments. This does not do that. I think we have to get exceptions for fetal anomaly, for the life of the mother, rape and incest. Those are things that will make this bill better. It may not be acceptable to me yet, but it would make the bill better.”

A 20-week ban “is a terrible bill and we are still talking about women who have tragic situations, often with wanted pregnancies, being forced to carry a child to term,” said Erin Davison-Rippey of Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa, who characterized the new draft as “extreme measures.”

“Yet again, (lawmakers) are dealing with divisive social issues from extreme members who are pushing their ideology instead of dealing with the real issues that matter to Iowans such as the budget crisis,” Rippey said.

In addition to prohibiting an abortion after 20 weeks, the House GOP amendment states that life begins at fertilization, allows an exemption for the life and health of the mother, and would subject physicians who violate the law to medical board discipline.

It also includes reporting requirements for physicians who perform abortions and the Department of Public Health and allows a woman who has an abortion after 20 weeks to seek damages from the physician if the abortion was performed intentionally or recklessly. The amendment also allows the parents of a minor woman, a county attorney or the state attorney general to seek injunctive relief to prevent a physician from performing an abortion in violation of the law.

One person disappointed by the House decision to drop the “heartbeat” language that could prohibit an abortion after just six weeks is Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig. He called the introduction of the ban on abortions once a heartbeat is found “a good turn of events.”

He had thought the heartbeat language might attract the support of a few senators who weren’t on board, as well as some disappointed that a “personhood bill.” That bill, which would have established in code that life begins at conception and could have effectively banned abortions, did not attract enough supporters to be debated in the Senate.

“The real easy logic is that we define somebody as having passed when their heart stops,” he said. Although he believes life begins at conception, Schultz said, “It’s very easy to go to the other end to say life starts when a heartbeat starts.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com.

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