DES MOINES — Calling it an “extremely difficult decision,” Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Monday the state won’t appeal a judge’s ruling from last month that Iowa’s new “heartbeat” law mostly banning abortions violates the state constitution.
Senate File 359, passed in the 2018 Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Reynolds in May, never went into effect as a judge stayed it amid a legal challenge. The law would have banned most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically about after six weeks of pregnancy.
The Guttmacher Institute, a national reproductive health care policy and research organization, has described Iowa’s ban as “the most extreme anti-abortion measure adopted” in the country in 2018.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Iowa City-based Emma Goldman Clinic quickly sued to have the law tossed under provisions of the state — not the U.S. — constitution.
Last month, on the 46th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, Polk County District Judge Michael Huppert agreed with the advocates, saying the state’s heartbeat law is “violative of both the due process and equal protection provisions of the Iowa Constitution.”
With the clock ticking on seeking a review, Reynolds decided an appeal would be fruitless.
“When I signed the Fetal Heartbeat bill last May, we knew that it would be an uphill fight in the courts that might take us all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “But everything changed last June, when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down our 72-hour waiting period after concluding that the Iowa Constitution provides a right to an abortion and imposes strict scrutiny on all our abortion laws. I think the Iowa Supreme Court got it wrong.
“But after this decision and because of Planned Parenthood’s legal maneuverings, I see no path to successfully appeal the district court’s decision or to get this lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
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The state’s fetal heartbeat restriction was made law last year shortly before the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a less-restrictive abortion rule passed by the 2017 GOP majority.
That law, which was signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, would have required women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours before proceeding.
That law also established a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but that has not been challenged in court.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood said Reynolds made the right call to drop the case.
“The fact that this ruling will go without further legal challenge is a victory for every Iowan who has ever needed or will need a safe, legal abortion,” said a statement from Erin Davison-Rippey, Planned Parenthood’s state executive director for Iowa. “It is also a reminder that our fundamental Constitutional rights must be protected, and our judicial nominating process must remain intact, free from intrusion by partisan politicians. Checks and balances live at the core of our democracy, and personal beliefs have no place in the state Constitution.
This session, the Iowa Legislature so far appears taking different tacks toward stymying such adverse court rulings in the future.
A measure to change the way Iowa judges and justices are selected, Senate File 237, is advancing. The bill would remove the Iowa Bar from playing a role in electing members of the district judge nominating commissions and the statewide commission that vets candidates for the state appeals court and the Iowa Supreme Court. Those commission members would be picked by politicians.
Changing the 57-year-old process is necessary because “Iowa has one of the most activist supreme courts in the country with rulings against law enforcement, a ruling ‘finding’ a right to abortion and redefining marriage all in direct defiance of your duly passed laws,” according to Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel for the conservative Family Leader group.
In addition, Reynolds has voiced support for a state constitutional amendment saying the state does not guarantee the right to an abortion.
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“The decision not to appeal is hardly a surprise when Iowa’s Supreme Court has already indicated it will go to any length, even twist the Iowa Constitution, to preserve the killing of unborn children,” the Family Leader said in a statement after Reynolds’ announcement, and also called for such a state constitutional amendment.
“Rather than be distracted by a losing legal battle, now is the time to renew our focus on changing hearts and minds and to seek other ways to advance the cause of protecting the unborn in Iowa and around the nation,” Reynolds said. “I’m proud to lead the most pro-life state in the country and remain firm in my belief that all human life is precious.”
James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.