2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Debate over abortion amendment packs Iowa Capitol hearing

Proposed constitutional change comes after judges toss new laws

Dozens of people Wednesday pack an Iowa Capitol committee room to hear arguments and weigh in on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would declare the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee)
Dozens of people Wednesday pack an Iowa Capitol committee room to hear arguments and weigh in on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would declare the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee)

DES MOINES — A proposed state constitutional amendment would either put a stop to judicial overreach on abortion laws or devastate women’s reproductive health care choices, according to dozens of competing speakers Wednesday at the Capitol.

Republican legislators are advancing a proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution that declares the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion.

The proposal was drafted after Iowa courts struck down Republican-written legislation that attempted to mandate a three-day waiting period for an abortion and to ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.

The proposed constitutional amendment received its first public hearing Wednesday, and dozens of Iowans crammed into a room in the Iowa Capitol to make their voices heard.

Supporters said the proposal would protect the unborn and stop courts from what they think has been judicial overreach. Multiple speakers accused Iowa judges of making laws from the bench and derisively referred to those judges as “unelected.”

The proposal “is a piece of legislation we shouldn’t need, but do. It is a bill that gives the power of lawmaking back to the people of Iowa through their elected representatives in the Legislature instead of in the hands of unelected, activist judges,” said Caitlyn Dixson, executive director of Iowa Right to Life.

Daniel Zeno, policy director for the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, pushed back on that argument, noting the judicial branch is a coequal branch of government.

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“There have been plenty of times the ACLU has disagreed with the court. ... That does not mean it is not a coequal branch,” Zeno said. “This is yet another effort by Iowa politicians to ban abortions.”

A constitutional amendment must be approved by consecutive General Assemblies and then Iowa voters. Even if it is, the amendment would pose a conflict with the 1973 landmark Roe c. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming a woman’s right to an abortion.

Jamie Burch Elliott, public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, accused legislators of trying to put their own beliefs into the state constitution.

“This bill would erode the fundamental rights of Iowans guaranteed by our Constitution,” Elliott said. “It is shocking that legislators have proposed such a drastic measure in order to advance their personal beliefs.”

Joan Thompson, with the Iowa Catholic Conference, said she thinks there is no evidence that the writers of the Iowa Constitution intended to recognize a right to an abortion. She said the recent state high court rulings have raised the bar for abortion laws.

“The (Iowa) Supreme Court has raised the right to an abortion almost beyond the reach of the legislative process,” Thompson said.

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, which was written in the same 2017 legislation as the mandatory three-day waiting period that the courts struck down.

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