DES MOINES | The potential loss of federal funding should the state halt government-funded abortions caused the head of the Iowa Department of Human Services on Friday to deny a request by 41 GOP legislators to start the process of rescinding rules governing pregnancies terminated in cases of rape, incest and fetal deformation.

“After careful review and consideration, it is my decision to deny the petition,” DHS Director Charles Palmer said in a letter to Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, who led 41 House Republicans in seeking to severely restrict Medicaid-funded abortions in Iowa.

Palmer said legal precedent in federal decisions regarding similar situations in other states that have sought to end government-funded abortions point to the likelihood that Iowa could risk $2.1 billion in Medicaid money by pursuing that course of action.

The DHS director worried that rescinding the state’s current rules would violate federal requirements, while likely “would jeopardize all federal Medicaid funding Iowa receives, approximately $2.1 billion annually. This funding is important to the delivery of vital care to vulnerable Iowans,” he said in his letter. “I respect your deep feelings on this issue and my decision does not come lightly.”

The petition brought by the House Republicans contended that rules allowing for abortions funded via taxpayer dollars for fetuses that are physically or mentally deformed or those conceived in cases of rape or incest are illegal and should be rescinded.

According to DHS officials, federal law permits federal funds to be used for abortions to save the life of the mother or for rape or incest. In Iowa, 22 Medicaid-paid abortions were performed in fiscal 2012 – which ended Saturday, according to DHS officials. Of those, 15 were for severe fetal anomalies, five were performed to save the life of the mother, and two were for situations that involved rape. There were no requests for Medicaid payments to abort a pregnancy caused by incest.

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, praised the DHS director’s decision.

"I'm pleased Gov. Branstad put the brakes on this latest attempt by House Republicans to deny health care options to women who are victims of rape or incest,” McCarthy said in a statement. “From banning birth control such as the pill to reducing cancer screenings, this effort by Republicans was just the latest attempt in their relentless attack on women's health care.”

Likewise, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa issued a joint statement applauding Palmer’s decision to deny the emergency rule-making petition.

“This petition would have put the health of Iowa women and their families at risk,” said Planned Parenthood of the Heartland President and CEO Jill June. “Thousands of Iowans rely on the Medicaid program every year. This decision ensures that those who need access to vital health care can get the services they need at a price they can afford.”

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legislative director, said the DHS made the right decision in concluding that no rule change will be made.

“The petition asked for a procedural run-around that was improper under Iowa law,” Bettis said. “It sought to withhold abortion coverage from a qualified woman. Only a woman facing those extremely difficult circumstances--not politicians--knows what decision is right for her."

There was no immediate reaction from House Republicans to Friday’s letter.

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