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House passes a bill to require fetal development education in Iowa schools

Gold dome of Iowa capitol against a gray-blue sky
Madeleine Charis King
The Iowa House voted Wednesday to require fetal development education in Iowa schools.

Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives voted Wednesday to require schools to teach about fetal development starting in seventh grade, and show an animated video depicting the process of fertilization and every stage of human development inside the uterus.

The bill would specifically require a video to be shown that is “comparable to the ‘Meet Baby Olivia’ video developed by Live Action,” which is an anti-abortion rights organization.

Supporters of the bill say they hope it will help kids believe that life begins at fertilization and inform their future choices about pregnancies, while opponents say the “Baby Olivia” video is misleading and pushes a religious and political agenda on Iowa students.

The animated “Meet Baby Olivia” video shows sperm reaching an egg as the narrator says, “This is the moment that life begins. A new human being has come into existence.”

Rep. Molly Buck, D-Ankeny, said the video is medically inaccurate and promotes one viewpoint.

“The question of when life begins is deeply personal. It varies among individuals. It varies among families. And honestly, it varies among faiths,” Buck said. “And it is not the role of our chamber to prescribe what people what people believe or require teachers to influence young people with propaganda.”

Rep. Anne Osmundson, R-Volga, said “Meet Baby Olivia” has been reviewed by medical experts, and schools would not have to show that exact video.

“This is teaching basic biology to our children, and it helps to answer one of life’s biggest questions: where did I come from?” she said.

The bill would also require human growth and development curriculum in grades 7 and 8, and health curriculum in grades 9 through 12, to include instruction on human biology related to pregnancy, human development inside the womb, and a high-definition ultrasound video at least three minutes long “showing the development of the brain, heart, sex organs, and other vital organs in early fetal development.”

The bill passed on a 59 to 35 vote, with two Republicans joining all Democrats to vote against it.

During a House subcommittee hearing on the bill last month, Angela Caulk, lobbyist for the Family Planning Council of Iowa, said the video only cites doctors who are associated with anti-abortion groups. She said the “Meet Baby Olivia” video doesn’t align with facts provided by hospitals.

“The survival rate for a fetus born at 20 weeks is 5% to 6%,” Caulk said. “They made it seem in that video like this is a fairly common thing. It also states that life begins at fertilization, but in all actuality, a third to a half of eggs that are fertilized never implant…Why would we subject Iowa students to a video for human growth and development rife with medically inaccurate information?” Caulk asked.

The “Meet Baby Olivia” video tracks developmental milestones in the womb, and says that around 20 weeks after fertilization, “with a lot of help,” babies have survived outside the womb.

The video dates the progression of pregnancy starting with the date of fertilization, while most doctors date pregnancies based on the first day of the woman’s last period. This makes developmental milestones appear to happen about two weeks earlier in pregnancy than what a pregnant person might hear from their doctor.

Amber Williams, a leader in the Polk County chapter of Moms for Liberty, said she would have benefitted from this instruction before she got an abortion when she was 18.

“Had I been shown the video ‘Meet Baby Olivia,’ which actually follows the science of the incredible journey of life beginning at conception, I would have chose life,” Williams said.

Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, said lawmakers should reject the bill and honor the choices and beliefs of all parents.

“It is never okay to push a political or religious agenda onto our public schools and our public school educators and our public school children,” she said.

Ryan Benn, a lobbyist for The Family Leader, said the bill doesn’t take away any choices, like that of choosing an abortion, it just informs those choices. He said there aren’t any religious claims in the video.

“Ultimately, we just want to teach kids at a young age that life begins at conception, that that baby in the mother’s womb, she’s a baby, and hopefully that information carries over into decisions later in life,” Benn said.

Lobbyists for public school groups objected to prescribing a specific video in state law.

The bill now goes to the Iowa Senate for consideration.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter