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Iowa Supreme Court rules on constitutional abortion protections, overturning 2018 ruling

Abortion-rights supporters gather on Des Moines' streets in reaction to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.
Madeleine King
Abortion-rights supporters gather on Des Moines' streets in reaction to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Last updated 12:10 p.m. June 17

The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed a 2018 court ruling that established strong legal protections for abortion under the state constitution.

In the ruling issued Friday, the majority opinion of the court found that the ruling lacks textual and historical support and “insufficiently recognizes that future human lives are at stake.”

The state’s highest court also reversed a lower court’s decision overturning a 2020 law that requires a 24-hour waiting period for those seeking an abortion. It sent the case back to a lower court to reevaluate.

This significant decision in Iowa comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case this month that could overturn constitutional protections for abortion at the federal level.

If the nation’s highest court overturns Row v. Wade, as it appears poised to do, according to a leaked draft of an early opinion published by Politico, it will be significantly easier for Iowa’s Republican-led legislature to pass legislation further restricting – even banning – abortion in the state.

In a statement issued Friday morning, Gov. Kim Reynolds called the ruling “a significant victory in our fight to protect the unborn.”

“The Iowa Supreme Court reversed its earlier 2018 decision, which made Iowa the most abortion-friendly state in the country,” she said. “Every life is sacred and should be protected, and as long as I’m governor that is exactly what I will do.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, issued a statement, calling the decision “a positive step in our fight to protect the unborn.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said it was “a victory for the separation of powers.”

“Undoing a constitutional right manufactured simply by judicial fiat and solidifying the legislature’s independence is a remarkable display of judicial restraint,” he said.

However, Iowa Democrats have condemned the decision as an attack on women’s rights.

"This decision introduces new barriers to accessing care and leaves Iowans exposed to even more attacks on our reproductive freedoms,” said Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, in a statement. “We are one step closer to a future where Iowa Republicans could have free rein to outlaw abortion and restrict reproductive health care.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Des Moines, said in a statement she plans to “fight like hell to make sure every family in Iowa has access to safe, legal abortions” as she awaits the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the decision is “a direct assault on the freedom of Iowa women to make their own health care decisions and of all Iowans to exercise their right to self-determination.”

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling came out of a case centered on an Iowa law requiring a 72-hour abortion waiting period. The court ruled the law unconstitutional because it found the Iowa Constitution protects the right to seek an abortion as a fundamental right.

The ruling had made it very difficult for Iowa lawmakers to pass further abortion restrictions.

Last year, a lower court struck down the 24-hour waiting period law due to the constitutional protections determined in the 2018 case.

Earlier this year, the state asked the Iowa Supreme Court to review the 2018 ruling as it weighed in on the 24-hour waiting period law. A lawyer for the state argued the decision was wrong and should be overturned.

Since the 2018 decision, the make-up of the Iowa Supreme Court has significantly changed. During her time in office, Gov. Kim Reynolds has appointed four of the seven justices currently serving on the court.

Unlike other states, Iowa does not have a “trigger law” that would automatically outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

But in recent years, Iowa’s Republican-led legislature has passed several laws seeking to further restrict abortion, including a 2018 law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, which was struck down in a district court.

Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion group, applauded the decision. Lawyers for the group argued before the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn the 2018 ruling.

“Now state legislators have substantially more freedom to protect the most vulnerable citizens and empower women with the time and information they need before making such a life-altering decision,” said Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life, in a statement.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

Natalie Krebs is the health reporter for Iowa Public Radio.