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Iowa Supreme Court prevents 6-week abortion ban from going into effect

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(DES MOINES, Iowa) — The Iowa Supreme Court prevented a six-week abortion ban that was signed into law several years ago from going into effect.

The court was split in a 3-3 decision Friday on the case, meaning abortion remains legal in Iowa.

The 2018 bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds, prevents abortions from being performed once cardiac activity can be detected, which typically occurs around six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant.

However, the law was struck down by a district court in January 2019, which ruled that the law violated the Iowa Constitution and that there was no state interest in banning abortions so early in pregnancy.

In that ruling, Polk County District Judge Michael Huppert referenced a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision in regard to a different bill that attempted to restrict abortion, in which the justices had written “a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy is a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution.”

Currently, abortion is banned in the state after 22 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group focusing on sexual and reproductive health.

Patients who want an abortion in Iowa must have one in-person counseling sessions and then return at least 24 hours later for the abortion.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, Iowa’s highest court in June 2022 reversed the 2018 decision and concluded that abortion is not protected by the state constitution.

Since the 2018 decision, the composition of the state Supreme Court had shifted with Reynolds, a Republican, appointing four of the seven justices.

But the court disagreed that it could revive a law that had been struck down years prior.

“The State appealed [the January 2019 ruling], and now asks our court to do something that has never happened in Iowa history: to simultaneously bypass the legislature and change the law, to adopt rational basis review, and then to dissolve an injunction to put a statute into effect for the first time in the same case in which that very enactment was declared unconstitutional years earlier,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote in the court’s decision Friday.

The justice added, “In our view, it is legislating from the bench to take a statute that was moribund when it was enacted and has been enjoined for four years and then to put it into effect.”

If the court had decided in favor of the ban, Iowa would have joined several others states that have passed so-called “heartbeat bills” in the past including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Texas.

Ohio and South Carolina have also passed six-week abortion bans, but both are currently facing legal challenges.

Abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, praised the decision. The group wrote on Twitter, “The Iowa Supreme Court just preserved abortion access in Iowa by blocking a near-total abortion ban from taking effect. This is a resounding victory for Iowans and reproductive freedom. #BansOffOurBodies”

Reynolds criticized the court, saying it failed to exercise its authority.

“To say that today’s lack of action by the Iowa Supreme Court is a disappointment is an understatement,” she wrote in a statement. “Not only does it disregard Iowa voters who elected representatives willing to stand up for the rights of unborn children, but it has sided with a single judge in a single county who struck down Iowa’s legislation based on principles that now have been flat-out rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no fundamental right to abortion and any law restricting it should be reviewed on a rational basis standard — a fact acknowledged today by three of the justices. Still, without an affirmative decision, there is no justice for the unborn.”

Since Roe was overturned, providers in states like Iowa are struggling with worker shortages and other barriers to keeping their doors open. In data provided exclusively to FiveThirtyEight by #WeCount — a national research project led by the Society of Family Planning, a nonprofit that supports research on abortion and contraception — of the eight remaining clinics in Iowa and Nebraska, four had no available appointments, three had wait times between four and five weeks and one had an appointment available in one to two weeks in April.

The data also indicated that there were 24,290 fewer legal abortions between July 2022 and March 2023, compared to a pre-Dobbs baseline.

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