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Iowa Supreme Court overturns 2018 ruling, says abortion isn't protected by the state constitution

A protestor holds up a sign saying My Body My Choice
Madeleine King
Abortion-rights supporters gather on Des Moines' streets in reaction to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.

Last updated 10:50 a.m. June 20
The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed a 2018 court ruling that established strong legal protections for abortion under the state constitution.

In the ruling issued Friday, the majority opinion of the court found that the ruling lacks textual and historical support and “insufficiently recognizes that future human lives are at stake.”

“Constitutions — and courts — should not be picking sides in divisive social and political debates unless some universal principle of justice stands on only one side of that debate. Abortion isn’t one of those issues,” read the opinion penned by Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield.

The state’s highest court also reversed a lower court’s decision overturning a 2020 law that requires a 24-hour waiting period for those seeking an abortion. It sent the case back to a lower court to reevaluate.

This significant decision in Iowa comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case this month that could overturn constitutional protections for abortion at the federal level.

If the nation’s highest court overturns Roe v. Wade, as it appears poised to do, according to a leaked draft of an early opinion published by Politico, it will be significantly easier for Iowa’s Republican-led legislature to pass legislation further restricting – even banning – abortion in the state.

On Friday, Rita Bettis Austen, the legal director of ACLU Iowa, which represented Planned Parenthood, the organization that challenged the state’s 24-hour waiting period, called the ruling a “devastating reversal.”

“We know that the intention is to try to restrict and ultimately ban abortion and we’re going to do everything we can to fight that and protect abortion access in the state,” Bettis Austen said at a press conference.

Bettis Austen said the ACLU is planning to continue to fight to overturn the 24-hour law in a lower court under the state’s “undue burden” standard, which is the standard that Iowa has returned to under Friday’s ruling.

In the meantime, representatives for Planned Parenthood said they canceled appointments ahead of the ruling, and they will be rescheduled as providers work out how to comply with the 24-hour law.

In a statement issued Friday morning, Gov. Kim Reynolds called the ruling “a significant victory in our fight to protect the unborn.”

“The Iowa Supreme Court reversed its earlier 2018 decision, which made Iowa the most abortion-friendly state in the country,” she said. “Every life is sacred and should be protected, and as long as I’m governor that is exactly what I will do.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, issued a statement, calling the decision “a positive step in our fight to protect the unborn.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said it was “a victory for the separation of powers.”

“Undoing a constitutional right manufactured simply by judicial fiat and solidifying the legislature’s independence is a remarkable display of judicial restraint,” he said.

However, Iowa Democrats have condemned the decision as an attack on women’s rights.

"This decision introduces new barriers to accessing care and leaves Iowans exposed to even more attacks on our reproductive freedoms,” said Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, in a statement. “We are one step closer to a future where Iowa Republicans could have free rein to outlaw abortion and restrict reproductive health care.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Des Moines, said in a statement she plans to “fight like hell to make sure every family in Iowa has access to safe, legal abortions” as she awaits the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the decision is “a direct assault on the freedom of Iowa women to make their own health care decisions and of all Iowans to exercise their right to self-determination.”

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling came out of a case centered on an Iowa law requiring a 72-hour abortion waiting period. The court ruled the law unconstitutional because it found the Iowa Constitution protects the right to seek an abortion as a fundamental right.

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling came out of a case filed by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which centered on an Iowa law requiring a 72-hour abortion waiting period. The court sided with Planned Parenthood, ruling the law unconstitutional because it found the Iowa Constitution protects the right to seek an abortion as a fundamental right.

The ruling had made it very difficult for Iowa lawmakers to pass further abortion restrictions.

Last year, a lower court struck down the 24-hour waiting period law due to the constitutional protections determined in the 2018 case.

Earlier this year, the state asked the Iowa Supreme Court to review the 2018 ruling as it weighed in on the 24-hour waiting period law. A lawyer for the state argued the decision was wrong and should be overturned.

Since the 2018 decision, the make-up of the Iowa Supreme Court has significantly changed. During her time in office, Gov. Kim Reynolds has appointed four of the seven justices currently serving on the court.

Unlike other states, Iowa does not have a “trigger law” that would automatically outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

But in recent years, Iowa’s Republican-led legislature has passed several laws seeking to further restrict abortion, including a 2018 law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, which was struck down in a district court.

Anti-abortion activist Kristie McGregor in Sioux City welcomed the court ruling, but said she’s not celebrating until abortion is completely outlawed in Iowa.

For the last two years, McGregor has spent every Wednesday outside the Sioux City Planned Parenthood clinic, praying. Ever since she miscarried in 2017, she said she’s devoted herself completely to fighting for a ban on abortion.

“I think sometimes people get excited, and then they, then they give up the fervor in the fight,” McGregor said. “But we have a long road ahead of us. And we need to keep vigilant and keep pushing forward.”

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.