DES MOINES | Pro-life advocates say they hope to convince Gov. Terry Branstad to halt taxpayer funding for abortions in cases of fetal abnormality.

Marlys Popma of rural Kellogg, president of Iowa Right to Life, said her group “takes severe issue” with a recent decision by Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, to deny a request by 41 GOP House members seeking to rescind state rules governing pregnancies terminated in cases of rape, incest and fetal deformation.

“Iowa is currently one of only three states that fund abortions with taxpayer dollars for fetal abnormality,” Popma said in a statement. “In no way is this consistent with the federal Hyde Amendment and funding for such abortions should be ceased immediately. We call on the administration to act accordingly.”

State Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, who led the petition effort to change DHS rules, said she was disappointed by the agency’s action because she does not believe it is following the intent of legislation passed during the 2011 session that Branstad signed relating to taxpayer-funded abortions. She said she also is disappointed that Branstad has not intervened since she accompanied him on a tour around Iowa stressing the importance of agency rules mirroring legislative intent.

“I don’t want to poke him in the eye, but he is ultimately responsible,” she said.

In her statement, Popma praised Branstad as “a consistent defender of the lives of the unborn” and noted that her group affirms its support for him. But she added that Iowa Right to Life “regrettably deems it necessary to make our views known on the denial of the petition and its petitioners."

In an interview, Popma said “without doubt” the federal Hyde amendment “does not require the state to fund abortion for fetal abnormality,” and she planned to seek a meeting with Branstad and his staff “about what his next steps may be.” She also said she hoped to talk with Palmer about the issue as well and felt it was too early in the process to determine whether the situation might trigger any kind of legal challenge.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern to determine what our next steps will be,” she said. “We would like to see an immediate change in the funding of abortions for fetal abnormalities.”

Palmer cited the potential loss of federal funding should the state halt government-funded abortions as a major consideration in his decision to deny the GOP legislators’ rule-making petition. He 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.

“This funding is important to the delivery of vital care to vulnerable Iowans,” Palmer said in a letter to Pettengill. “I respect your deep feelings on this issue and my decision does not come lightly.” He told members of the Iowa Council on Human Services Wednesday that a thorough research of the legal issue was conducted before he made his ruling.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht issued a response Friday noting Palmer’s concern that approving the petition would have endangered $2.1 billion in Medicaid funding that is important to the delivery of vital care to vulnerable Iowans. “There was no clear mandate in the 2011 appropriations to make any changes to the long-standing Iowa policies regarding abortion. Any such changes should be based on a clear directive from the Legislature,” he added in his email response.