'Personhood' bill could limit Iowans' access to birth control, experts say

Senate File 253 will need to survive a full committee

Combination estrogen and progestin birth control pills, photographed on Nov. 1, 2016. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
Combination estrogen and progestin birth control pills, photographed on Nov. 1, 2016. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)

A Republican-sponsored bill that wants to establish that life begins at conception also could severely limit women’s access to birth control, health care experts say.

The legislation, SF 253, passed through a Senate subcommittee on Monday but still needs to make it out of the full Judiciary Committee by week’s end.

The so-called personhood bill is careful to say that it is not intended to prohibit the use of any means of contraception. But once you start unpacking the definitions within the bill, that’s exactly what could happen, some say.

“When you look at the science of how birth control works and when you understand the definitions of conception and contraception and abortifacient in this bill — it is clear that almost all methods of birth control would be impacted by the bill and be banned,” said Erin Davison-Rippey, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

The women’s health care organization, which provides services to 30,000 Iowans, has several other concerns with the bill, including how it effectively would ban abortion, as well as negatively impact Iowans trying to receive in vitro fertilization and women who have miscarriages.

Also Read: Meanwhile, in the Senate, a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks has advanced out of a subcommittee

But it isn’t the only health care provider worried about what this bill could mean for reproductive health.


“SF 253 not only ignores scientific and medical fact, it threatens the reproductive rights of women,” wrote the American Society for Reproductive Medicine — a group of 8,000 medical professionals — in a letter to the subcommittee that discussed the bill Monday.

Here’s where things get complicated: In the bill, conception is defined as the process of combining the sperm with the ovum, resulting in a fertilized zygote. That’s different from the medical definition, in which the fertilized zygote then must be implanted within the uterine wall.

And the difference between fertilization and implantation is a big one — fewer than 20 percent of fertilized eggs are capable of implanting in the uterus, the society of reproductive medicine wrote.

“Given the scientific fact regarding the uncertainty as to whether any particular embryo has the potential to develop, ultimately, into a person, it is unreasonable and imbalanced to deem human life to begin at conception or fertilization or to define ‘persons’ to include embryos,” it wrote.

And here is where experts say the problem lies: Contraception in the bill then is defined as a method of stopping the development of pregnancy at any stage before conception. It does not include an abortifacient, which is defined as a method of stopping the development of a pregnancy at any stage after conception.

Hormonal birth control methods and IUDs prevent pregnancies through multiple methods — stopping the ovulation of an egg; preventing or impairing the motility of sperm; and developing a uterine environment that does not support implantation of a fertilized egg, Jodi Tomlonovic, executive director of the Family Planning Council of Iowa, testified on Monday before the Judiciary Subcommittee.

“It is the last mode that causes all of these methods to be banned under SF 253,” Tomlonovic said. “In any given instance, we don’t know which of the three modes prevents the pregnancy from occurring.”

That could limit women’s access to the most effective types of birth control, including the pill, the shot, the contraceptive patch, the implant and intrauterine devices.

“Pretty much, what you’re left with is condoms and barrier methods” such as diaphragms and spermicides, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based women’s health research and policy organization. “Contraception is used by women and couples, this is something pretty much everyone uses and is considered a normal part of health care. You can be pregnant when you want to be pregnant and space births how you want.”

Unsurprisingly there is a direct correlation between access to birth control and the number of unintended pregnancies.

“It’s not that people will stop having sex,” Nash said. “So there are more unintended pregnancies, which increases the need for abortion. ... Legislators are not looking to the future when they are actively undercutting access to health care services and the public safety net.”

Similar personhood measures were unsuccessful in Colorado, Mississippi and North Dakota, Nash said. In those states voters, rejected amendments that would have granted the unborn constitutional rights.

“The public does not support it,” she added.” This is an opportunity for Iowans to speak up and make their voices heard. It can be incredibly illuminating for some legislators to hear how people feel about, contraception, sex education and abortion.”

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Effectiveness of different birth control methods

• Implant— .05 percent

• IUD — .02 percent

• Injection — 6 percent

• Pill — 9 percent

• Patch — 9 percent

• Diaphragm — 12 percent

• Condom — 18 percent

• Spermicide — 28 percent

Numbers indicate the number of every 100 women who had an unintended pregnancy within the first year of use of a contraceptive method.

Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



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