Iowa asks state Supreme Court to let its restrictive abortion law go into effect

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa asked the state Supreme Court on Thursday to let its blocked abortion law go into effect and uphold it altogether, disputing abortion providers’ claims it infringes on women’s rights to exercise bodily autonomy.

The law, which bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant, was in effect for a few days last July. A district court judge soon after put it on pause for the courts to assess its constitutionality. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds appealed the decision with the state Supreme Court’s permission.

Abortion remains legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy while the new law is on hold.

Iowa lawmakers passed the measure with exclusively Republican support during a one-day special session. The ACLU of Iowa, Planned Parenthood North Central States and the Emma Goldman Clinic filed a legal challenge the next day.

Most Republican-led states have limited abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and 14 states have near total bans at all stages of pregnancy. Earlier this week, Arizona joined that set when the state’s Supreme Court upheld a long-dormant law that bans nearly all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Thursday’s hearing in Iowa is the latest development in a yearslong legal battle over abortion restrictions in the state. The state Supreme Court would issue a decision by the end of its term in June, but that might not be the issue’s conclusion.

Iowa’s high court has not yet resolved whether earlier rulings that applied an “undue burden test” for abortion laws remain in effect. The undue burden is an intermediate level of scrutiny that requires laws do not create a significant obstacle to abortion.

“It is emphatically this court’s role and duty to say how the Iowa Constitution protects individual rights, how it protects bodily autonomy, how it protects Iowan’s rights to exercise dominion over their own bodies,” Planned Parenthood attorney Peter Im told the justices.

The state argues the law should be analyzed using rational basis review, the lowest level of scrutiny to judge legal challenges. Representing the state, Eric Wessan said it’s important “after years of litigation” that Iowa’s high court say that definitively in their decision.

The high court could decide to end the temporary pause without ruling on the law’s constitutionality or the standard to use in assessing it, instead sending the case back to lower courts for full arguments there.

In July, Reynolds called lawmakers back to Des Moines after the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a blocked 2018 law that was nearly identical to the new one. It was passed despite state and federal court decisions at the time, including the precedent set in Roe v. Wade, affirming a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

After both courts reversed those decisions, Reynolds asked for the 2018 law to go into effect. An Iowa high court justice’s recusal led to a rare 3-3 decision that left the block intact.

The full court heard arguments on Thursday, suggesting all seven justices would consider the case.

Wessan referenced the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2022 reversal in his arguments to show the bench already indicated what’s appropriate in this case when they ruled there’s no “fundamental right” to abortion in the state constitution.

“This court has never before recognized a quasi-fundamental or a fundamental-ish right,” he said.

There are limited circumstances under the Iowa law that would allow for abortion after six weeks of pregnancy: rape, if reported to law enforcement or a health provider within 45 days; incest, if reported within 145 days; if the fetus has a fetal abnormality “incompatible with life”; or if the pregnancy is endangering the life of the woman. The state’s medical board recently defined rules for how doctors should adhere to the law.

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