DES MOINES — Legislation heading to the Senate floor for debate could make Iowa among the states with the strictest abortion restrictions.
It has the potential to challenge Roe v. Wade, the national precedent on a woman’s right to abortion services, and would endanger accreditation for the University of Iowa’s obstetrics and gynecology residency program.
Senate Study Bill 3143, which passed through last week’s “funnel” when the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced it with an 8-5 vote, would prohibit physicians from performing an abortion in Iowa if a heartbeat is detected in the fetus.
“This kind of legislation essentially bans abortion at six weeks of pregnancy,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy and research organization. “That’s very early in pregnancy — many women are not even aware they are pregnant at that point, so they haven’t even addressed the issue whether they want to continue with the pregnancy.”
Kim Reynolds, a Republican seeking election this year to continue her role as governor, has not indicated if she would sign the legislation if it reached her desk.
“The governor would wait to comment on the bill until she sees it in its final form” said Reynolds’ spokeswoman Brenna Smith wrote in an email to The Gazette Thursday. “However, she believes in protecting life and has said she will never stop working to protecting the unborn.”
In the bill, a physician who “knowingly and intentionally” performs an abortion when there’s a fetal heartbeat detected could be charged with a Class D felony, punishable with up to five years in prison.
Exceptions would be made in the case of a medical emergency, or a situation in which the medical procedure is performed to preserve the life of the pregnant woman that includes “a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy” — but not including the woman’s age or any psychological, emotional or familial conditions.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said this could mean young victims of sexual assault would be unable to obtain an abortion if the law is passed.
It also would mean the UI could lose accreditation for its residency program in obstetrics and gynecology — the only program in the state — according to a letter to the Judiciary Committee from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The national accreditation agency requires that obstetrics and gynecology residency programs provide training or access to training in abortions.
“Currently, approximately a third of our University of Iowa (obstetrics and gynecology) residency graduates remain in Iowa to practice,” the letter obtained by The Gazette reads. “Iowa already ranks next to last in the nation for OBG physicians per capita with two-thirds of Iowa’s counties not having an OGB physician.
“Losing our OBG residency would deal a devastating blow to women’s health care in our state.”
The Family Leader, a lobbying group that has been a strong advocate for abortion restrictions, is in support of the bill.
“We believe the heartbeat bill moves Iowa — and ultimately, hopefully, the United States — a long way in that direction, acknowledging that once there’s a beating heart, it’s obvious to all there’s a baby,” Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel of the Family Leader, said this past Wednesday.
Iowa is not alone in such a proposal. So far, six other have put forth similar bills during their current legislative session, including Missouri, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
In 2013, North Dakota passed a six-week abortion ban, which later was struck down by the courts and didn’t go into effect. Arkansas legislators implemented an abortion ban in 2013 at 12-weeks of pregnancy if a heartbeat is detected, but that also was struck down.
Both laws were killed because they were determined unconstitutional under the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.
In recent years, Guttmacher’s Nash said more states are putting forth these proposals because there is a sense that the Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade no longer may be on the court in the near future.
“There are states that are looking to be that state that then takes it up to the court to revisit Roe v. Wade,” she said. “There’s this sort of jockeying for position among the states where they want to be that case that tries to overturn Roe.”
Sen. Petersen agreed, saying pushing through legislation that is unconstitutional “really means they are really after Roe v. Wade.”
Similar legislation on banning abortion after a heartbeat is detected did not make it through last year’s session, but a 20-week abortion ban was passed into law.
A portion of that bill — a 72-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain abortion services — is being challenged by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa in the Iowa Supreme Court.
A Republican-backed “personhood” bill — which would declare life begins at conception — also failed to make it through last year’s legislative session.