DES MOINES, Iowa — A lawsuit challenging the nation’s most restrictive abortion law was filed Tuesday in Iowa, a state that for years was largely left out of Republican efforts to overturn abortion protections and where the Democratic attorney general has refused to defend the law.
If allowed to take effect on July 1 as planned, the law would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, around the sixth week of pregnancy. Abortion-rights groups say that’s a time when many women do not know they are pregnant.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Planned Parenthood Federation of America announced the filing of the complaint in Polk County District Court in Des Moines. The lawsuit argues that the law violates the Iowa Constitution by banning nearly all abortions and putting women’s health at risk. It seeks an injunction to halt the law’s implementation. Litigation could take years.
Until the 2016 election, Iowa had little to no role in the broad GOP effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy until a fetus is viable.
“We haven’t heard much out of Iowa until the past couple of years,” said state policy analyst Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a national research group that supports abortion rights and tracks abortion legislation. “It has been a very striking shift in the state Legislature, and it really shows how important state legislatures are to abortion access.”
The 2016 election flipped control of the Iowa Senate, putting Republicans in charge of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in two decades. Up to that point, Democrats had maintained enough political power to curtail most Republican anti-abortion attempts.
Chuck Hurley is chief counsel for the Family Leader, a faith-based group in Iowa that opposes abortion. He recalled being at an election night party alongside several state lawmakers. When it became clear Republicans would win Statehouse control, Hurley said he immediately worked the room to talk about abortion legislation.
“It is very interesting that a purple state is this out front on life,” Hurley said, adding, “There’s a pent up pro-life effort here in Iowa.”
Lawmakers adopted several abortion restrictions in 2017, including a 20-week abortion ban and a requirement that women wait three days before ending a pregnancy. The waiting provision, one of the longest in the country, is on hold because of a different lawsuit.
Separately, a new Iowa-based coalition of anti-abortion organizations was formed last year to renew efforts toward an abortion ban. The Coalition of Pro-Life Leaders, which includes Family Leader, put aside years of disagreement among the groups to help win passage of the 20-week ban and the six-week ban.
“The pro-life movement in Iowa is unified for the first time in many years,” said Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Iowans for Life, one of the coalition’s groups.
Iowa Republicans last year also gave up millions in federal dollars to create a state-funded family planning program that prohibits participation from abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the affiliate’s medical director and the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City.
Shortly after the announcement of the lawsuit, Iowa’s longtime attorney general said he would not defend the law. Democrat Tom Miller said the decision to remove his office from the case was based on a belief that the measure “would undermine rights and protections for women.”
Miller said the Thomas More Society, a conservative Chicago-based law firm, has agreed to defend the law for free. The firm had no immediate comment.
Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said Iowa’s abortion law is tied to a small group of “very extreme politicians” in the state Legislature.
“The perception of Iowa is that we have been a rational, relatively progressive state that has always valued the health of our citizens,” she said. “It seems very uncharacteristic and extreme for an abortion ban of this magnitude to happen here.”
The lawsuit names Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Board of Medicine as defendants. Reynolds, who signed Iowa’s ban earlier this month, said at a public event in Davenport that she felt “very confident” about defending the lawsuit.
“It’s about protecting life. That’s the first and foremost priority,” she said.