Iowa Supreme Court strikes down abortion restriction provision

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

A provision of an Iowa law — one of the severest abortion restrictions in the nation that requires women to undergo a waiting period before obtaining an abortion — is unconstitutional, the Iowa Supreme court ruled.

The court issued an opinion Friday that the state provision requiring a woman seeking abortion services at any stage of her pregnancy undergo a preliminary 72-hour waiting period “violates the right to equal protection under the Iowa Constitution” and should not be upheld.

“In making this decision, we recognize the continuing debate in society over abortion and acknowledge the right of government to reasonably regulate the constitutional right of women to terminate a pregnancy,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the ruling.

Another provision that establishes a 20-week ban on abortion procedures is in effect and was not part of the legal decision decided Friday.

“In carefully considering the case, we conclude the statute enacted by our legislature, while intended as a reasonable regulation, violates both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution because its restrictions on women are not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest of the state,” Cady wrote in his rule. “The state has a legitimate interest in informing women about abortion, but the means used under the statute enacted does not meaningfully serve that objective.”

Two justices, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman, dissented on the ruling.

In his opinion, Mansfield said the majority opinion lacked a sense of balance and, rather than relying on constitutional interpretation, “the opinion instead relies at times on an undertone of moral criticism toward abortion opponents.”

“From reading the majority opinion, one would barely know that abortion — with few exceptions — was continuously illegal in Iowa from the time our constitution was adopted until the U.S. Supreme Court overrode our law by deciding Roe v. Wade,” Mansfield wrote.


Mansfield’s name has been mentioned among those to become the next U.S. Supreme Court nominee after the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The law, signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, instated provisions that required the three-day wait as well as an appointment before the waiting period for women to view an ultrasound, review options and have the option to hear a description of the fetus.

Twenty-seven states require women seeking an abortion to wait a specified amount of time, most often 24 hours, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health care policy and research organization. However, only a handful — Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah — require a 72-hour waiting period.

The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

In their arguments earlier this year, attorneys contended the law placed undue burden on women and could prevent some from obtaining the medical procedure — especially those who already experience barriers to health care, including women of color, immigrant women and women with a low income.

Lawyers in the state’s defense, however, said this wasn’t the case and it simply gave women the necessary time to be certain of their decision to get an abortion.

The case was heard by the court as the Republican-controlled legislature considered further abortion restrictions this past session. Legislators went on to approve a fetal heartbeat law that would ban abortion when a heartbeat is detected — at about six weeks of pregnancy, typically before a woman knows she is pregnant.

A Polk County judge blocked that law in May after it was signed by Gov. Reynolds until a lawsuit, filed by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Iowa City-based Emma Goldman Clinic, is resolved.


Republicans and social conservatives are hoping the ensuing legal battle on the heartbeat law will be a vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that guaranteed the right to abortion.

‘the final word’

“Today’s decision is a resounding victory for Iowa women,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, told an afternoon news conference.

She noted the Iowa justices carved out protections under the state constitution to ensure equal health treatment for women and men in health care matters that cannot be appealed to the federal courts and would prevail even if the Roe v. Wade decision eventually were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This decision was made under the Iowa Constitution and that means importantly that the Iowa Supreme Court is the final word on abortion rights under the Iowa Constitution, and this opinion can’t be appealed to the federal courts,” she said.

The Family Leader, a Christian advocacy group, issued a statement that the organization’s officials were shocked the state justices would read the Iowa Constitution, “which lists the right to life as our first and most important right,” as a document allowing abortion.

“Because that child in her mother’s womb ... she’s a baby,” the statement said. “And as even Roe v. Wade admitted, if the baby were recognized as a person, then her ‘right to life would be guaranteed’ and should take precedence over an imagined right to abortion.”

Reynolds, in a statement Friday afternoon, said she was “disappointed” in the court’s ruling.

“Often, women are in crisis when facing this decision, and it’s a decision that can impact them for the rest of their lives,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think it is unreasonable to require 72 hours for someone to weigh their options and the important decision they are about to make.”


Bettis Austen declined to say whether a lawsuit would be brought against the 20-week ban. She said Friday’s Iowa court ruling adopting judicial protections “more robust” than federal standards “makes it abundantly clear” the six-week ban is unconstitutional.

“This ruling sends a very clear message to Gov. Reynolds and to the elected officials who voted for this medically unnecessary law that whatever you try to throw at Iowa women, the Iowa Constitution is on the side of protecting our fundamental right to abortion,” said Suzanna de Baca, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

“While (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Arthur) Kennedy’s open seat is an invitation for these hostile states to deal a final blow to abortion access, with today’s ruling the Iowa Supreme Court has established that abortion is protected in our state,” she added. “We are elated that the court blocked this egregious anti-women agenda of making safe, legal abortion harder to access and we want Gov. Reynolds and her allies in the Legislature to know we will never stop fighting for our fundamental right to abortion and the Iowa Constitution protects that right.”

Gazette Des Moines bureau reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this article.

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