Last year, Iowa lawmakers passed what was then considered the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. The “fetal heartbeat” law would have banned most abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy. But Iowa courts stepped in, blocking that law and ensuring future attempts to restrict abortion rights would fail in the state.
Now, abortion opponents in Iowa are trying to rally support for what they see as their only path to restricting or banning abortion.
Luana Stoltenberg of Davenport said she became an anti-abortion activist more than 30 years ago, after rare complications from having three surgical abortions left her unable to have children.
“I felt betrayed and very angry,” Stoltenberg said. “And so when I heard and learned more about it, I thought, I have to speak out.”
She said back then, she and fellow activists focused on trying to convince individual women to not have abortions. Now, they’re focused on the U.S. Supreme Court and what some see as the eventual reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal. That would allow many states to further restrict, and even outlaw, abortion.
“I never, never thought it would ever be a possibility,” Stoltenberg said. “And now that we are getting closer and closer to it possibly being a possibility, it is a great joy.”
But for now, a Roe reversal won’t affect abortion rights in Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the Iowa Constitution protects a fundamental right to abortion, setting up a barrier to restrictions even if Roe is overturned.
Anti-abortion groups are saying the only way to get past that and restrict abortion is by amending the state constitution to say it does not protect abortion rights.
“The supreme court said there's a right to abortion in the constitution, and the amendment is the 'dammit, no there isn't amendment,'” said Martin Cannon, an anti-abortion lawyer who unsuccessfully defended the “fetal heartbeat” law on behalf of the state. “If you want to put it on a bumper sticker, I don’t know if you can do that one or not. But that’s what it is.”
Twenty-nine Republican senators co-sponsored the constitutional amendment during this year’s legislative session, which would have been enough support to pass it in the Iowa Senate. But neither chamber ever got the chance to vote on it when it failed to advance past a legislative deadline.
Now, Cannon and others working for anti-abortion groups say they are traveling around to rally public support and encourage lawmakers to pass the amendment in 2020.
Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the Iowa Legislature would have to pass it again in 2021 or 2022. Then the measure would go to a vote of the people.
“The prospects for passage will improve if the legislators see that the populace is behind the thing,” Cannon said. “Why should a legislator support a constitutional amendment that ultimately has to go to the people who aren’t going to vote for it? It makes no sense. We have to get the people behind it first. And I think we're doing that.”
But Cannon admits it’s not that easy to explain the proposed constitutional amendment to potential supporters. It doesn’t carry the imagery of the so-called fetal heartbeat law or even the promise that it would immediately stop women from getting abortions.
At a June breakfast meeting of the Des Moines-area Westside Conservative Club, Cannon framed the amendment as reversing what he calls “judicial activism” by the state’s highest court.
“The Iowa Supreme Court has usurped your authority as the only authors of the constitution,” Cannon told a few dozen audience members. “They've run away with the ball. You have to chase them down and take it back.”
He urged the audience to contact lawmakers, make donations, and knock doors to push for the amendment.
“We know that they are trying to ban abortion. Simple,” said Erin Davison-Rippey, executive director for Planned Parenthood in Iowa, said of these efforts. “It is not acceptable, and it is not what Iowans want.”
She points to Iowa Poll results showing 54 percent of Iowans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. She says even though abortion rights in Iowa now have a high level of protection, they’re not 100 percent safe.
“We can no longer take for granted that abortion will be safe and legal simply because of past rulings like Roe v. Wade,” Davison-Rippey said. “And so we will continue to fight to protect those rights every single day.”
Like Stoltenberg, Davison-Rippey, said she didn’t see this coming.
“I don’t talk to many people who thought that this is what our reality would look like in 2019,” Davison-Rippey said.
This year, several states passed a wave of abortion restrictions in the run-up to a possible Roe v. Wade reversal. Some states have passed trigger laws that would automatically ban abortion if that happens.
Stoltenberg said it’s a bit disappointing that Iowa doesn’t get to be part of the action.
But she said Iowa passing a fetal heartbeat law in 2018 was the catalyst for other states to do the same and go even further.
“We’re plowing ground. And thank goodness other states are benefiting from it,” Stoltenberg said. “If we’ve got to be the ditch digger, that’s not a bad thing to be. It would be nice to say we’re among the crowd, but somebody’s got to be the first and find out how you get this done.”
The next three years will reveal if abortion opponents in Iowa can gain back the ground they’ve lost through the lengthy process of amending the constitution.