Iowa 'fetal heartbeat' abortion law has day in court

Judge has 60 days to halt law or order a civil trial

Martin Cannon, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society, represents the state of Iowa during arguments in a legal challenge
Martin Cannon, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society, represents the state of Iowa during arguments in a legal challenge to Iowa's fetal heartbeat law in state court Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register, Pool)

DES MOINES — A state law restricting legal abortions based on detection of a fetal heartbeat would deny women’s fundamental rights and should be struck down as unconstitutional, attorneys challenging legislation in Iowa court said Friday.

However, proponents of the so-called fetal heartbeat law — passed and signed earlier this year and considered one of the most restrictive abortion statutes in the nation — told a district judge Friday that Senate File 359 meets Iowa’s strict legal standard and an injunction should be lifted that prevented it from taking effect last July 1.

Polk County District Judge Michael D. Huppert — who previously accepted a mutually agreed-upon stipulation by attorneys on both sides to issue a temporary stay — said he expected to take up to 60 days to decide whether to grant a summary judgment barring the law as unconstitutional or allowing the matter to go to trial.

Regardless how the district judge rules, representatives on the losing side expect the decision will be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, and anti-abortion activists hope the ensuing legal battle ultimately could be a way to get the abortion issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, with the goal of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The Iowa law’s constitutionality is being challenged in a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Dr. Jill Meadows and the Iowa City-based Emma Goldman Clinic against Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Board of Medicine.

“This law is patently unconstitutional and would gravely harm Iowa women if allowed to take effect,” Alice Clapman, an attorney with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the judge Friday in seeking to block the law’s implementation.

“Summary judgment is a drastic remedy that must be exercised with extreme care,” countered Martin Cannon, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a faith-based Chicago legal organization that is representing the state’s position at no cost to Iowa taxpayers.


Cannon said the 2018 law is narrowly tailored within the Iowa court’s legal standard to further the state of Iowa’s compelling interest in the life of a child in the womb with a measurable heartbeat.

Senate File 359, passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed May 4 by Reynolds, would require doctors to conduct an abdominal ultrasound to test for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected — which attorneys said could be from about six weeks up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy — a physician could not perform an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or medical emergency.

The statute does not specify criminal or civil penalties for those breaking the law, but critics argue it was poorly written with vague language creating uncertainty for state-licensed doctors making medical decisions for their patients.

“This bill does not ban one single abortion, not one. It simply requires that all abortions be done early,” argued Cannon, who said the Legislature was acting within its legal bounds to impose standards at the start of life, similar to death provisions when a person’s heart stops beating.

“These legislators in Iowa have found that balance, they have found that tipping point, and it is heartbeat,” said Cannon during the two-hour hearing. “A human child with a heartbeat is a living child, no matter where she resides.”

Clapman said federal and Iowa courts have ruled that states can regulate abortion but they cannot ban abortion before viability, which she contended is what the state’s “heartbeat” law would do before many women would know they’re pregnant. If allowed to stand, the “egregiously” unconstitutional law would violate both due process and equal protection guarantees of the Iowa Constitution and “would virtually eliminate safe, legal pre-viability abortion care in Iowa,” she said.

“It would allow the Legislature to intrude upon the profoundly personal realms of family and reproductive autonomy, virtually unchecked so long as it stopped just short of requiring women to move heaven and earth,” the petitioners said in their request for summary judgment.

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