DES MOINES — Senate Republicans, on a party-line committee vote, approved a resolution Thursday giving Iowa voters a chance to amend the state constitution to specify there is no fundamental right to abortion or public funding of the procedure.
Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, told members of the Senate State Government Committee that Senate Joint Resolution 21 is needed to correct a judicial ”overreach” by the Iowa Supreme Court that “usurped” legislative authority by essentially creating a right that did not exist before the court’s 5-2 ruling to strike down an abortion limit in 2018.
“What we had was five unelected judges with the power of the gavel to rewrite our state constitution,” Chapman said before the 10-5 committee vote. “This is judicial tyranny. Do we want to cede our power — the people’s power — to unelected judges across the street to rewrite our constitution? It’s our responsibility, not the courts.”
Senators voted to place on the debate calendar a proposed amendment that eventually could come before Iowa voters to declare the Iowa Constitution “shall not be construed to recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.”
SJR21 must pass both the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House in exactly the same form this session and then win support of the 89th Iowa General Assembly elected in November before the measure would come before Iowa voters as early as the 2022 general election.
Republicans said the action was necessitated by the Iowa Supreme Court ruling striking down a 72-hour waiting period before Iowa women could undergo an abortion. Justices found that women in Iowa have a fundamental right to make medical decisions for themselves, and that any state effort to restrict rights must clear the “strict scrutiny” of serving a compelling governmental interest.
“Constitutions are written to give rights to people, not take them away,” said Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, in support the court decision based on the constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses. “We, state senators, do not have the ability to take people’s rights and freedoms away, and yet here we are.”
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Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said the resolution was a GOP attempt to “weaponize” the state constitution to “eliminate rights that we currently have” as part of a coordinated effort to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally.
“Republicans complain of activist, unelected judges making these decisions on behalf of Iowans. But what’s ironic is that Republicans in Iowa and nationally are working to stack the courts with judges that will rule in their favor on the issue of abortion,” she said.
If successful, GOP legislators will be back to pursue the waiting period, a “heartbeat” bill and other abortion limits, Celsi said, “from the trash heap of history and pass them without fear of the Iowa Supreme Court overturning their laws.”
However, Chapman said the motivation for Thursday’s action was a desire to keep intact the checks and balances envisioned by the framers of the Iowa Constitution.
“This is about the people having their voice through the elective body to represent their will,” he said. “Unfortunately the court usurped the legislative branch and in that decision actually invented a fundamental right to an abortion.
“Any plain reading of our state constitution reveals no such right. In effect, the Iowa Supreme Court amended the Iowa Constitution. They overstepped their authority in that decision,” Chapman added.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said the earliest the proposed amendment would be eligible for Senate floor debate would be next Wednesday or Thursday, but added, “it would probably be after that. I’m not sure.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said discussions are ongoing between the House and Senate on the language and confidence in the fact that Iowans support the resolution.
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“We aren’t going to just rush through the process just to try to get it off our plate. We want to make the language we have is the right language,” he told reporters.
“I’m not going to endorse any specific piece of language right now until we have more input from our caucus, but we’ve started down that path,” he added. “Getting it right I think is going to be the important piece, not just doing it quickly.”
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