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Iowa abortion providers sue to block enforcement of 6-week ban

 abortion rights supporters fill the state capitol rotunda
Madeleine C King
Abortion rights supporters filled the Iowa Capitol rotunda Tuesday to protest abortion restrictions.

Iowa abortion providers filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block the enforcement of a ban on most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

Republican lawmakerspassed the “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban Tuesday night during a one-day special legislative session.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is scheduled to sign it into law Friday afternoon at an event hosted by an evangelical Christian organization that will also feature most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. The law will take effect immediately when Reynolds signs it.

Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin has scheduled a hearing for Friday afternoon on the abortion providers’ request for an injunction that would bar the state from enforcing the ban.

Planned Parenthood, the Emma Goldman Clinic and the ACLU of Iowa argued in a court filing that the abortion ban would violate the Iowa Constitution because it would ban the vast majority of abortions.

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said the bill purports to have exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother, but those have limits that will cause problems for patients.

“We’re seeking to block this ban because we know that every day that the law is in effect, Iowans will face life-threatening barriers to getting desperately needed medical care, just as we’ve seen in other states with similar bans,” she said.

Until the six-week ban can be enforced, abortion is still legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood officials would not say if they are canceling abortion appointments for Friday afternoon and beyond in case there is not an immediate ruling in their favor.

“But I know we are prepared for all eventualities,” said Planned Parenthood attorney Peter Im. “We are fully hoping for relief from the court, and we’re hoping we won’t have any interruption in providing care, but certainly we acknowledge that it’s a possibility.”

Im said Planned Parenthood and the Emma Goldman Clinic have a total of 200 patients scheduled for abortion services in Iowa this week and next week. It’s not clear exactly when the judge will issue a ruling in the case, but Im said he hopes the judge sees the urgency of the situation.

Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court deadlocked on Reynolds’ request to reinstate a nearly identical abortion ban she signed into law in 2018, leaving it blocked from enforcement. Im said he expects the new case to reach the Iowa Supreme Court.

In response to the new lawsuit, a spokesperson for Reynolds pointed to her statement from Tuesday night.

“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.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said the Iowa Supreme Court never ruled on the merits of the six-week abortion ban. Rather, the justices based their recent opinions on procedural issues.

“I am optimistic the Supreme Court will finally rule on the merits and find the 'heartbeat bill' constitutional,” Whitver said.

The bill would ban abortions after cardiac activity is detected with an abdominal ultrasound, which can be as early as six weeks after the beginning of a person’s last menstrual period. This is when the pregnancy is still considered an embryo, not a fetus, and is before a heart has developed. This is why medical providers have said the term “fetal heartbeat” as used in the bill is misleading.

The bill has limited exceptions for rape, incest, miscarriage treatment, medical emergencies that endanger the mother’s life, and fetal abnormalities that are incompatible with life.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter