Explainer: Why Iowans (likely) will be blocked from voting directly on abortion rights

Gov. Kim Reynolds and House Speaker Pat Grassley in 2021. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

By Ty Rushing

November 20, 2023

More states are enshrining access to abortion care in their state constitutions, and some Iowans are wondering if the same can be done here?

The technical answer is “yes,” but the more realistic and simple answer is “no.”

While polling shows that 61% of Iowans support access to safe and legal abortion, the reality is that the majority of Republican lawmakers who control Iowa’s government are anti-abortion and—

How about we just end the debate and do what Ohio did and let people vote directly on the issue?

Oh, hey there! So you are referring to the Nov. 7 election in which Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported protecting access to abortion care when the issue was placed on the ballot, thus making the Buckeye State the seventh in the nation where voters opted to protect abortion access?

Yes, that! Why can we just do that in Iowa?

For starters, Ohio is one of 18 states that allow “initiated constitutional amendments.” This simply means citizens can petition to add a measure capable of amending the state constitution to the ballot so that people can directly vote on certain issues.

In Ohio, a petition must be signed by 10% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election (a little more than 400,000 signatures based on the 2022 voter turnout). Then it needs to pass a simple majority +1 to take effect. And—

Get to the point.

Sorry. Like Iowa, the Buckeye State has a Republican trifecta, meaning the GOP controls the Ohio House, Senate, and governor’s office. But, because citizens can initiate ballot measures there, they were able to vote to enshrine access to abortion care.

However, Iowa is not one of the 18 states that allows voters to petition to change the constitution.

So how do we change the Iowa Constitution?

To make an amendment to the Iowa Constitution, a proposal has to pass through the Iowa House and Iowa Senate in two consecutive general assemblies. This means it would have to pass this upcoming session (90th general assembly) that starts in January 2024 and again during the 91st general assembly either in January 2025 or January 2026.

And then what?

If a measure makes it that far, then the proposed amendment goes to a statewide ballot where it must be approved by a majority of voters.

OK, so I will write to my representative and senator and tell them I want to vote on this. They should move forward with putting it to a statewide vote, right?

Good luck with that. With Republicans—most of whom are anti-abortion—firmly in control of both chambers in Iowa, there is little chance of them considering a proposal to amend the constitution to protect abortion access.

In fact, during the 2023 legislative session, Iowa House Democrats introduced a joint resolution to start the process of creating a constitutional amendment to ensure the rights to reproductive care—the very thing Ohio voters passed.

What happened to that bill?

It was introduced by the Democrats and that was about it. Republicans didn’t even entertain the idea of giving it a committee hearing let alone a subcommittee hearing. However, they did give Fairfield Republican Rep. Jeff Shipley a subcommittee hearing on his bill to ban margarine and vegetable oils from being used in school lunches.

Yup. And here’s another twist.

Let’s hear it.

During the previous general assembly, Iowa Republicans passed a proposed amendment that says there is no constitutional right to abortion in the state. There’s a chance Iowa Republicans could pass it a second time when the legislative session starts in January and place it on the 2024 general election ballot.

However, seeing as how abortion access has been a losing issue for Republicans post-Roe—even in red states—they may not want to risk putting it to a vote, but there is always a chance.

So, basically, you’re saying there is nothing that can be done?

Not exactly. The most important thing you can do is vote and vote for candidates who believe in the same things you believe in and or stand for. I know that sounds corny—

It does.

But it’s the truth. Voting matters and your vote can make a difference.


  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.


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