State asks Iowa Supreme Court to reinstate six-week abortion ban

By Nikoel Hytrek

November 8, 2023

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird filed a brief with the Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday asking the justices to dissolve the injunction on the six-week abortion ban passed by Republicans in July.

“The State respectfully asks this Court to adopt the rational basis test for laws protecting unborn life and to find that abortion providers and clinics lack third-party standing to sue on behalf of pregnant women, and thus to dissolve the district court’s injunction and render judgment for the State,” the brief states.

The Iowa Supreme Court hasn’t scheduled oral arguments and the plaintiffs—which include Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Emma Goldman Clinic, and Dr. Sarah Traxler, an OBGYN and chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States—will have a chance to respond to the brief.

“We remain committed to protecting Iowans’ fundamental right to control their bodies and futures and know this filing is just another step in the process,” said Ruth Richardson, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States. “Make no mistake, abortion remains safe and legal in Iowa. And we will continue to fight to provide the compassionate, high-quality reproductive health care, including abortion, that Iowans need because people deserve the right to control their bodies and decide what’s best for them and their families without government interference.”

The six-week ban was passed in a special session on July 11 and was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds three days later at an Evangelical political event. A few days later, Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin granted a temporary injunction to block enforcement of the new law.

The six-week ban prohibits abortions after electrical impulses are detected in an embryo, before most people know they’re pregnant. Reynolds and Republicans in the Iowa Legislature claim this is a heartbeat, but there is no physical heart at this stage of pregnancy.

In the brief, Bird argues the six-week ban is constitutional because the Iowa Supreme Court and US Supreme Court found there is no right to abortion in the Iowa or US constitutions. Because of this, the brief states the district court was wrong to say any constitutional protection exists for Iowans who don’t want to be pregnant or for abortion providers.

The standard the district court used to justify the injunction is the undue burden standard, which basically forbids abortion restrictions from placing unreasonable barriers between pregnant people and their ability to get abortions.

For that reason, Bird argues the court should adopt the “rational basis” test, which would mean abortion restrictions are more likely to remain in place.

The standard requires the state to prove it has a legitimate governmental interest and there’s a rational connection between that goal and what the law requires. It’s a normal standard of review for constitutional questions, including those that involve due process and/or equal protection. Bird asserts the 2023 ban meets that standard.

“I’m confident that the law is on our side, and we will continue fighting to defend the right to life in court,” Bird wrote in her emailed press release.

The brief also argues the plaintiffs have no grounds to sue because their rights as providers weren’t harmed, they can’t prove any patients were harmed for the few days the ban was in effect, and that anyone who is harmed would be able to sue the state for themselves.

Iowa physicians have said the ban ignores standard medical practice and training and will likely harm Iowans. In other states with restrictions on abortion care, studies and reports have proved that pregnant people’s lives are endangered by bans.

Reynolds also released a statement by email. In it, she uses anti-abortion language, referring to embryos and fetuses as children.

“The people of Iowa and their elected representatives have spoken clearly and by a wider margin than before: it’s time for the Fetal Heartbeat Law to be upheld once and for all,” she said in the statement.

State Sen.Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines) responded on behalf of her party’s caucus.

“Today’s legal filing and statements from the governor and attorney general show once again how extreme, anti-choice politicians are out of touch with the will of Iowa voters,” she said. “A substantial majority of Iowans support safe, legal access to abortion and reject attacks on reproductive freedom in Iowa–and so do Senate Democrats.”

Though Republicans claim they’re doing the will of Iowa voters, 61% of those polled this year said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Hundreds gathered in the Capitol Rotunda during the special session to protest the bill and urge lawmakers not to pass it.

Updated Nov. 8, 5:02 p.m. to include the statement from Ruth Richardson. 

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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