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Republican Senators Want Iowa Constitution To Say It Does Not Protect Abortion Rights

jake chapman
John Pemble/IPR
Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, is a lead proponent of the abortion-related constitutional amendment.

This post was updated Thursday, Jan. 23 at 11:38 a.m. 

The Iowa Constitution would be amended to say it does not protect abortion rights under a proposal advanced Thursday by Republicans on the Senate State Government Committee. 

Democrats voted against the proposal. It is now up to Republican leaders to decide if the measure will get a vote by the full Iowa Senate. 

This step follows last Thursday's subcommittee meeting at which two Republicans agreed to advance the proposed constitutional amendment. 

Original post from Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. 

Originally proposed around this time last year, the amendment is an attempt to undo a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that protects a fundamental right to abortion in the state.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said the constitutional amendment is meant to rein in what he calls “judicial activism.”

“For over 160 years of our state’s history, no one has ever suggested that somewhere in the constitution there was this right,” Chapman said. “In effect, the Iowa Supreme Court amended Iowa’s constitution. They overstepped their authority in that decision.”

The constitutional amendment would mean that for any abortion restriction challenged in Iowa courts, judges would use U.S. Supreme Court precedent to evaluate its constitutionality, instead of Iowa Supreme Court precedent. For now, the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling means abortion rights have stronger protections in Iowa than at the national level.

And abortion rights opponents are expecting the U.S. Supreme Court to chip away at national abortion rights protections. This constitutional amendment would make it possible for that to affect Iowa.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said the Iowa Constitution has been amended several times, but it was always to expand the rights of Iowans. She said this amendment would take rights away.

“Public poll after public poll affirms that our constituents trust pregnant Iowans to make decisions about their own bodies with the advice of their physicians, their partner and their God,” Celsi said. “In contrast, if approved, this constitutional amendment seeks to take away a right to bodily autonomy and privacy.”

Twenty-nine Republican senators co-sponsored this proposal in 2019, enough support to pass it in that chamber. But it never got a full vote in the Senate.

But this week, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds called on lawmakers to pass this constitutional amendment.

And now Chapman said the state government committee is planning to change the proposed constitutional amendment to make it clear that its intent is the “protection of life.”

The new version would add the following words to the Iowa Constitution:

Protection of life. To defend the dignity of all human life, and to protect mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this constitution shall not be construed to recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or to require the public funding of abortion.”

Caitlyn Dixson, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said this doesn’t change the effect of the amendment, but it just reflects what she says is Iowa’s “pro-life climate.”

“Ultimately, it’ll come down to the people of Iowa recognizing that this decision, regardless of your view on abortion, took away the people’s rights to change and alter the laws to what the people of Iowa at the time agree with or disagree with,” Dixson said.

Planned Parenthood lobbyist Jamie Burch Elliott also said the new version would have the same legal effect as the original version.

“Really what we’re seeing here is just some added language to make it a little bit more extreme,” Burch Elliott said. “Previously, this could be construed as a protection, but now it’s abundantly clear that the ultimate goal here is to ban abortion and take away these rights and freedoms from Iowa women and families.”

Amending the Iowa Constitution is a long process. If the legislature passes the amendment this year, it will have to pass it again in 2021 or 2022. Then it would go to a vote of the people.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter