Iowa House, Senate approve one of the strictest abortion bills in country

The Iowa Statehouse (Photo: Caroline Cummings).

The Iowa House and Senate approved a bill in a back-to-back vote late Tuesday and early Wednesday, slated to give Iowa one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation that could set the stage to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade.

After nine hours of passionate debate, the Iowa House approved a bill late Tuesday night and sent it to the Senate, which signed off on the bill in a middle-of-the-night vote just after 2 a.m.

The bill would ban nearly all abortions in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks, with some exceptions.

The bill passed out of the chamber on a 51-46 vote late Tuesday. The Senate passed a similar measure in its chamber late February, facing what was at the time an uncertain future in the House. Some lawmakers were apprehensive to move anything forward that might not hold up in court and could upend "progress" made on the 20-week ban they approved in 2017.

But with some changes–adding language to protect the 20-week ban and allowing exceptions to the ban for some victims of rape or incest– the House moved forward with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States. The Senate followed suit hours later, approving the bill on a 29-17 vote

“Today we are taking a courageous step with the help of so many in here in the House to tell the nation that Iowa will defend its most vulnerable, those without a voice, our unborn children," said Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, who managed the bill on the floor. She acknowledged that the bill is designed to set the stage for a Supreme Court challenge of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

That sentiment was echoed in the Senate hours later, where Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, also called the bill an attempt to upend Roe vs. Wade.

"I don't think we're even trying to disguise that," Bertrand said. "Today we will begin this journey as Iowa becomes ground zero now, nationally, in the life movement and the starting line back to the Supreme Court. I believe this bill will be the vehicle to ultimately provide change.”

Several Democrats voiced fierce criticism of the bill during debate that lasted nine hours, arguing the bill is unconstitutional and undermines women's rights.

“These restrictions do nothing to reduce or eliminate abortion but put roadblocks between a woman and her physician in making the best medical decision for her," said. Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames.

She pointed out that some of the last minute changes–which helped lock-in some Republican votes for the bill–that added some exceptions to the ban like victims of rape or incest, was a good addition, but charged lawmakers "can't put lipstick on this pig and make it better."

Under these exceptions, the woman would have to report the rape to law enforcement, a health agency or physician within 45 days. The timeline for reporting a case of incest is 140 days.

Supporters say it’s about protecting the lives of the unborn, hailing the passage as a victory for life.

“{A heartbeat] is how we judge the end of life, and it’s a sound standard for how we judge the beginning of life," said Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison.

The bill almost certainly faces a challenge in court. Similar legislation in North Dakota and Arkansas was shot down by the courts, the North Dakota legislation by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, under which Iowa falls. Opponents say this means a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, while supporters contend Iowa has the opportunity to lead the charge at upending Roe vs. Wade.

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency pointed out the bill could put the University of Iowa’s OB-GYN residency program in jeopardy, causing it to lose its accreditation and force residents to seek training elsewhere at other institutions.

“In our so-called wisdom, we will cause a domino effect in how women’s’ healthcare is taught and provided in this state," said Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City.

The ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected was at the core of debate, though that provision was an amendment onto a separate measure that bans the transfer and use of fetal body parts for research with some exceptions.

Story updated---9:12 a.m. Wednesday

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