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Iowa GOP lawmakers pass 'fetal heartbeat' 6-week abortion ban

Protestors chant loudly outside the first public hearing of the special legislative session aimed at restricting abortion access in Iowa.
Madeleine C King
/
IPR
Protestors chant loudly outside the first public hearing of the special legislative session aimed at restricting abortion access in Iowa.

New abortion restrictions are set to become law in Iowa. In a special session Tuesday, Republican lawmakers in the Statehouse passed a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks.

Specifically, the bill would ban abortions after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo via abdominal ultrasound, which can be as early as six weeks after the beginning of a person’s last menstrual period. It echoes a nearly identical law passed five years ago that never took effect after it was blocked in court.

In a legal landscape remade by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, conservative lawmakers believe the new version will pass legal scrutiny. Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said it’s based on the belief that an embryonic pulse represents the beginning of life.

“The right to life is the one that is enshrined in the state Constitution and should be safeguarded above all other rights to the highest level,” said Sinclair, who guided the bill through the Iowa Senate.

Democrats said the proposal represents a near total ban on abortion in the state, since most women are not aware that they are pregnant at six weeks.

Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, argues in favor of banning abortions in Iowa after embryo cardiac activity is detected on the floor of the Iowa House on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.
Grant Gerlock
/
IPR News
Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, argues in favor of banning abortions in Iowa after embryo cardiac activity is detected on the floor of the Iowa House on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

“No government should ever have the power to force a person to go through a pregnancy and give birth,” said Rep. Elinor Levin, D-Iowa City. “That decision, every single time, must be in the hands of the person who is pregnant. That individual has to bear the weight of that decision and therefore no one else has the right to make that decision."

Gov. Kim Reynolds plans to sign the bill on Friday. It will take effect immediately, although abortion providers are promising a legal challenge.

Providers have said they will comply with the law even as they aim to block it in court. In the meantime, they plan to work with patients to see if they may have an abortion under the new law or help them reach a clinic in another state.

"The abortion ban the Iowa Legislature passed today is a devastating blow to reproductive freedom," said Planned Parenthood North Central States CEO Ruth Richardson. “My heart breaks for patients who will be denied health care, for the people who cannot afford to travel out of state. This ban will widen already unacceptable health inequities.”

Reynolds called the special legislative session because last month, the Iowa Supreme Court deadlocked on her request to reinstate the “fetal heartbeat” bill she signed into law in 2018, permanently preventing it from taking effect.

In a statement, Reynolds referred to that non-decision, and an opinion written by Justice Thomas Waterman in which he wrote that it was uncertain the same measure would pass today.

“The Iowa Supreme Court questioned whether this legislature would pass the same law they did in 2018, and today they have a clear answer,” Reynolds said. “The voices of Iowans and their democratically elected representatives cannot be ignored any longer, and justice for the unborn should not be delayed.”

Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol Tuesday to protest the abortion restrictions.

House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst told abortion rights supporters in the Capitol rotunda they will likely feel defeated after Republicans pass the “fetal heartbeat” bill. She urged them to vote their views on abortion in the next election.

“What we’re not going to do is give up,” Konfrst said. “What we’re not going to do is walk away. We’re going to double down, we’re going to fight, and we’re going to hold them accountable. Are you with us in this fight?”

Protesters cheered in agreement.

 Arguments broke out between some supporters and opponents of a six-week abortion ban at the Iowa Capitol.
Madeleine C King
/
IPR
Arguments broke out between some supporters and opponents of a six-week abortion ban at the Iowa Capitol.

Before taking initial votes on the bill, lawmakers heard comments from Iowans for an hour and a half in the House and more than two hours in the Senate.

Margaret Harris, a volunteer counselor at a Newton anti-abortion pregnancy center, said she supports the bill because she believes life starts at the very beginning of pregnancy.

“I say yes to this bill for all the moms who keep their babies in spite of uncertain support systems, who want their kids to have more secure lives than they did,” Harris said.

Hilary McAdoo, a fertility nurse from Waukee, opposed the bill. She told lawmakers the six-week ban would actually give most women much less time than that to seek an abortion.

“You may not get a positive home test until you are four to five weeks gestation,” McAdoo said. “That means you’re giving these women one week, one week to be able to obtain a safe procedure.”

According to a spokesperson for House Democrats, 96% of the more than 1,000 Iowans who submitted written comments online were opposed to the bill, while 4% supported the bill.

iowa senators talk in committee room at state capitol
Madeleine C King
/
IPR
Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, managed the "fetal heartbeat" abortion bill during the special legislative session.

A Des Moines Register pollfrom March found 61% of Iowans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 35% of Iowans say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

The special session began around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday with the House and Senate gaveling in. In the Senate, Republicans proposed and approved rules to end debate and move to final votes at 11 p.m.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said Republicans were rushing the process and muzzling Iowans by passing the bill in one day.

“You make women wait 24 hours for abortion care, but you’re going to give them less than three hours to make the case of why their bodies should matter, why they should be constitutionally protected in this state?” she said.

Petersen said it was a sad, dark day for Iowa.

Sen. Amy Sinclair later said nothing about the “fetal heartbeat” bill is new. She said a nearly identical bill was passed five years ago, and it went through several hearings and votes at the time.

“There has not been a rushed process,” Sinclair said. “In fact, I would suggest that perhaps this has gone on too long given the nature of the contents of the law.”

This story will be updated.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter