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State Government News

State asks Iowa Supreme Court to reverse 2018 abortion rights ruling

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John Pemble
/
Iowa Public Radio
The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday for and against overturning a 2018 opinion on abortion rights.

A lawyer for the state argued Wednesday before the Iowa Supreme Court that the Court’s 2018 decision establishing strong legal protections for abortion rights was wrong and should be overturned.

The case centers on whether an Iowa law passed in 2020 that requires an additional medical appointment at least 24 hours before getting an abortion should be allowed to stand. But the Court’s forthcoming ruling in this case could have a much broader impact on abortion rights in Iowa.

A lower court struck down the 24-hour waiting period last year because the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that a 72-hour abortion waiting period is unconstitutional. That ruling said the Iowa Constitution protects the right to seek an abortion as a fundamental right, making it very difficult for lawmakers to further restrict abortion.

Republican legislators and Gov. Kim Reynolds have criticized the 2018 ruling and are urging the Court to overturn it through this case.

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Sam Langholz argued the decision that declared a 72-hour abortion waiting period unconstitutional shouldn’t apply to a 24-hour waiting period.

“The state should have the opportunity to defend that new statute on the merits,” he said.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen responded on behalf of Planned Parenthood. She said the previous ruling should apply because the impact is the same.

“Your question goes to, do waiting periods change women’s minds? And the state has not put any evidence in the record that they do,” Bettis Austen said. “And the unrebutted evidence is that they don’t.”

Bettis Austen said the state had time in months of court proceedings to provide evidence that a 24-hour waiting period has different effects than a 72-hour waiting period, but the state did not.

Langholz said the state didn’t need to provide that kind of evidence to counter Planned Parenthood’s legal arguments.

Bettis Austen also said disagreeing with the 2018 ruling isn’t enough of a reason to reverse a relatively recent Court opinion.

“[The state’s] inability to point to anything—any changed facts, any lapse of reliance, any changing development in the law—means that its arguments to overrule are meritless,” Bettis Austen said.

But Langholz said the 2018 ruling is “manifestly erroneous.”

“There was nothing, you know, unworkable about Plessy v. Ferguson as a standard—separate but equal was pretty clear—but it was wrong on the day it was decided,” Langholz said. “It should have been corrected the day after it was decided. And the state would ask you to correct the 2018 decision now as well.”

Plessy v. Ferguson was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation.

Another part of Planned Parenthood’s argument against the 24-hour waiting period involves the fact that it was introduced as an amendment one evening without advance notice to the public, and passed through the legislature just a few hours later, in the middle of the night.

The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision by the end of June.

Unlike in 2018, the Court now has a majority of justices appointed by Reynolds. If the justices overturn the 4-year-old abortion ruling, it would become easier for the state legislature’s GOP majority to restrict abortion.

State law currently prohibits abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In 2018, Reynolds signed a law banning abortions after about 6 weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. That was never enforced because a district court judge ruled it unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers are also trying to eliminate abortion protections by amending the Iowa Constitution in case going through the courts doesn’t accomplish what they want.

If the U.S. Supreme Court chips away at federal abortion rights protections this year, state-level court decisions and policies will play an even bigger role in ensuring or denying abortion access in each state.