Iowa Supreme Court upholds law banning abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancy

The Iowa Supreme Court said Friday that the state’s strict abortion law is legal and asked a lower court to dissolve a temporary block on the law to ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, before that many women know that they are pregnant.

The 4-3 ruling is a victory for Republican lawmakers, and Iowa joins more than a dozen other states with restrictive abortion laws following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade.

However, until the lower court follows the high court’s instruction, abortion remains legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. It is unclear when the lower court will take action.

Currently, 14 states have near-total bans at all stages of pregnancy, and three ban abortion at around six weeks.

The majority of the Iowa Supreme Court reiterated Friday that there is no constitutional right to abortion. As requested by the state, they instructed the courts to evaluate whether the government has a legitimate interest in restricting the procedure, rather than whether there is too great a burden on people seeking access to abortion.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds immediately issued a statement welcoming the decision.

“I am pleased that the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld the will of the people of Iowa,” he said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen came out strongly against it, writing: “Today, the majority of our court strips Iowa women of their bodily autonomy by holding that there is no fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy under of our state Constitution. “I cannot support this decision.”

There are limited circumstances under Iowa law that would allow abortions after six weeks of pregnancy: rape, if reported to law enforcement or a health care provider within 45 days; incest, if reported within 145 days; if the fetus has a fetal abnormality “incompatible with life”; or if the pregnancy endangers the patient’s life. The state’s medical board recently outlined standards doctors must follow to comply with the law.

The ruling heralds the end of a years-long legal battle over abortion restrictions in Iowa, which intensified in 2022, when the Iowa Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court overturned decisions establishing the constitutional right to abortion.

Candace Gibson, state policy director at the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for abortion access, said the ruling will force women seeking abortions to leave Iowa, “navigate a self-managed abortion” or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

“Maintaining the six-week ban in Iowa is a terrible blow to the reproductive autonomy of residents,” Gibson said in a statement.

The Iowa law was passed with the sole support of Republicans in a one-day special session last July. The next day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Planned Parenthood North Central States and the Emma Goldman Clinic filed a court challenge.

The law was in effect for just days before a district judge put it on hold, a decision Reynolds is appealing.

At the time, Planned Parenthood North Central States said it stayed open late and made hundreds of phone calls to prepare patients amid the uncertainty, rescheduling abortion appointments in other states for those who wanted them. Court records showed that Iowa clinics had several hundred abortion appointments scheduled over two weeks last July, most of them after six weeks of pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood has since stopped providing abortion services in two Iowa cities, including one in Des Moines. The other Des Moines facility does not currently have the capacity to serve patients seeking abortions, so medication and the procedure are offered about 36 miles north in Ames.

Before Friday, Planned Parenthood providers had again reached out to people who wanted to make appointments about the possible outcomes of the Supreme Court decision, Masie Stilwell, director of public affairs, told in early June. That included the possibility that abortion would no longer be legal in their circumstances and they would have to work with staff to change the appointment in other states.

Abortion access will be a major issue in the 2024 elections across the country, though it remains to be seen whether Friday’s decision will turn the tide in increasingly red Iowa.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Rita Hart said Friday that Republicans “went too far” with the restrictive law, and “Iowa voters will hold them accountable this November.”