How we got here: Iowa’s abortion ban was years in the making

How we got here: Iowa’s abortion ban was years in the making

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds reacts after signing a new law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy before speaking at the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

By Ty Rushing

June 28, 2024

Well before the Iowa Supreme Court ended an injunction that blocked the state’s near-total abortion ban from taking effect, anti-abortion activists and Republican lawmakersincluding Gov. Kim Reynoldslaid a foundation for the ruling.

Sen. Pam Jochum remembers what it was like to live in Iowa when abortion was still illegal outside of extreme circumstances.

“When I was 18 years old, the Roe ruling came down, and I can tell you that before that ruling came down, women in Iowa and across this country were still having abortions, but it was done in unsafe, unsanitary conditions and places without a physician doing it,” said the 69-year-old Democrat from Dubuque. “I remember a woman who was an emergency room doctor who came to me and said, ‘Never turn the clock back.’”

Jochum said the doctor told her horror stories of treating women who had botched abortions, including those who died from excessive blood loss.

“Others were so mutilated that they could never bear children again,” Jochum recalled. “Because it was illegal, many times they would have to report it as a miscarriage or some other medical reason so that these women wouldn’t end up in jail or prison. So I never forgot that.”

Shades of Iowa’s past drew closer on Friday as the state’s near-total abortion ban took effect, almost a year after it was passed during a special session on July 11, 2023.

The Iowa Supreme Court overturned an injunction that kept Gov. Kim Reynolds’ and Iowa Republicans’ abortion ban at bay for nearly a year and gave anti-abortion advocates and politicians a victory in their long fight against reproductive freedom.

Iowa’s near-total ban prohibits abortion after electrical impulses are detected in an embryo—anti-abortion figures falsely call this a “fetal heartbeat”—but no physical heart is present at this point in pregnancy, which is around six weeks. Most people don’t know they’re pregnant this early either.

The ban has exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies, but they are narrow, and the rape and incest exceptions have reporting requirements (45 and 140 days, respectively).

While the law itself will still be tied up in the courts, Friday’s decision means it will go into effect, and abortion will be much more difficult—and for most, impossible—to access in Iowa.

“It has been a long road leading to this crux of abortion rights in the state,” said Mazie Stilwell, the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood North Central States. “The attack on abortion rights and bodily autonomy in general is nothing new; this has been happening in one way or another for decades.”

Stillwell said the US Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision that effectively overturned Roe empowered the anti-abortion movement. 

“That really marked a significant shift in the way that those anti-abortion politicians view their ability to take away Iowans’ rights when it comes to accessing abortion, but they certainly didn’t start with the Dobbs ruling,” she said.

‘Playing the long game’

Iowa lawmakers have debated access to abortion since before statehood, and the procedure was illegal—with a few exceptions, including the life of the mother—for most of Iowa’s history until the US Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade. 

However, even before the nation’s top court overturned Roe in 2022, anti-abortion activists nationwide and in Iowa laid the groundwork for banning the procedure.

“They’ve been playing a long game, and that long game is in a lot of ways just starting to show up,” Stilwell said. “So we have seen this crusade to really push this narrow, religiously motivated agenda on the broader public for so many years, but they haven’t been emboldened in the way that we see them today until this federal protection went away.”

Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Iowa State University and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women, said evangelicals in the 1980s really rallied around abortion as a key political issue to mobilize their churches. 

“They began to say to their congregations that this would be a way of getting evangelicals off the political sidelines and engaged politically by using the abortion issue,” she said. “Of course, evangelicals are a significant presence in the Republican Party in Iowa, and they have largely adopted an anti-abortion stance.”

Jochum also pointed to efforts by right-wing Christians and the Moral Majority movement led by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as significant influences in the fight against abortion and to make America a “Christian nation” in the wake of the Roe ruling.

The former president of the Iowa Senate and current minority leader also said that the group’s injection of their religious beliefs into politics contradicts the First Amendment and the founding fathers’ belief in religious freedom.

The first domino to fall

Stilwell said Iowa’s anti-abortion politicians have introduced various TRAP (targeted restrictions of abortion providers) laws over the last decade-plus targeting abortion providers.

“These TRAP laws are everything from detailed restrictions on the size of facilities and really just difficult hurdles that are placed in front of abortion providers,” she said.

However, Stillwell thinks what gave Iowa’s anti-abortion movement a political foothold was the 2013 ban on telemedicine abortions, which primarily affected rural residents. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately struck down the ban as unconstitutional in 2015.

Since the telemedicine ban, Iowa has implemented or proposed multiple abortion restrictions, including the 72-hour waiting period, the first version of the six-week ban, an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that specifies it doesn’t provide the right to an abortion, the 24-hour waiting period, and it culminated with the now-legal six-week ban.

“These bans—even if they have not been bans on almost all abortion in the state like what we see today—the attempts to chip away at people’s access have always been here, or at least for over a decade,” Stilwell said.

Jochum, who was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1992 before later becoming a senator, remembers anti-abortion legislation being introduced in the 1990s. However, most of those bills never were successfully implemented.

“It seems like every year we have at least one bill that’s been introduced to outlaw abortion or to put more and more restrictions on that fundamental right of equal protection and privacy,” Jochum said. “And up until more recently, it’s always been rejected by one of the chambers of the legislature, or if it ever made it through that, the Iowa courts would then say it’s unconstitutional and would stop it from going any further.”

The Trump card

One of the things that changed dramatically in Iowa over the last decade is control of the Iowa Legislature. Iowa Republicans have had full control of the Iowa House, Iowa Senate, and governor’s mansion since 2017 and have used that authority to limit abortion access further.

“In recent memory, Iowa was considered a politically moderate state,” said Kedrowski, the political science professor. “There was two competitive political parties, and neither party or its elected officials had really gone radical. Not hard right or hard left.”

Iowa’s former purple political status was even reflected in its elected officials. 

Kedrowski noted there used to be anti-abortion Democrats and pro-choice Republicans, but as politics have become more polarized, abortion is an issue where the middle ground was ceded.

“This has become one of the defining issues of the two political parties,” Kedrowski said. 

The expansion of Republican power in Iowa, coupled with the state party’s rightward shift, also coincided with the rise of Donald Trump, who remains an extremely popular figure in the Hawkeye State. 

Kedrowski said Trump’s ability to mobilize and motivate rural voters and prop up down-ballot Republicans, combined with long-time efforts from anti-abortion religious activists, was a perfect storm that led directly to Iowa’s near-total abortion ban.

“As the Iowa legislature came firmly under Republican control—and as the Republican majorities increased in the last few elections—what they have done is taken a page out of the playbook of a number of other Republican states, which is that they passed laws that they really probably didn’t anticipate would actually go into effect,” she said,

Kedrowski said passing these laws allowed Republican politicians to appeal to their base while also not worrying about what the actual legislation would be like were it to go into effect.

 “These were various trigger bans, and pushing the date of making the period where abortion would be legal shorter and shorter, and getting to a six-week ban, which is where Iowa is,” she said.

Although there aren’t any pro-choice Republican elected officials left in the Iowa Legislature, Stilwell of Planned Parenthood said there are still Republicans in the state who support abortion access. A recent Des Moines Register poll showed that 41% of Republicans support abortion in most or all cases.

“I have no doubt that it is so much more than just Democrats in this state who care about and who value that right to their own personal freedom and privacy and don’t want this level of government overreach in their lives and in their families’ lives,” Stilwell said.

She said if Iowans want to reverse the state’s abortion ban before the Iowa Supreme Court—all seven justices were appointed by anti-abortion Republican governors—makes a ruling on the legality of it, they have to show up at the polls. 

“I have no doubt that it is an overwhelming and growing majority of Iowans who we have on our side on this. And frankly, we just need them to vote like it,” Stilwell said. “We need those values to be showing up when they’re deciding who’s actually representing them at the Capitol because that’s where these decisions are getting made.”

  • 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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