In a divided ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld the legality of abortions up to the 20th week of pregnancy, despite the state’s plan to outlaw them after six weeks.
In a 3-3 decision, the state’s six justices were unable to come to a consensus on whether to reverse a lower court ruling that had rejected Republican Governor Kim Reynolds’ attempt to reinstate a six-week abortion ban that had been passed in 2018. The divided ruling upholds the judgment of the lower court.
Given that the majority of pregnant women aren’t even aware of their pregnancy by the sixth week of pregnancy, proponents of reproductive rights have claimed that a six-week ban effectively equates to a complete prohibition on abortion.
The verdict may have an impact on court cases that are still pending in conservative state legislature-enacted six-week restrictions in all 50 states of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the state hosting the first Republican primary for the 2024 election will also solidify the controversial subject’s place in presidential politics. GOP candidates already canvassing the state can expect to be questioned regularly about their views on the decision, which is likely to become a tool for more effectively determining whether candidates support a six-week abortion ban.
Although the decision on Friday drew on some prior decisions and legal arguments, it was more specifically focused. It declared that maintaining the injunction was simply a result of the court’s impasse and not the result of a blatant legal opinion intended to prevent the reinstatement of the ban. The justices did, however, pen dozens of pages of “nonprecedential” opinions, or legal dissents that don’t add to the body of knowledge on the state’s abortion laws.
Many supporters of reproductive rights, however, were surprised that the court even reached a deadlock.
Five of the seven judges on the bench were appointed by the conservative Reynolds since 2018, making up all seven judges on the bench who were selected by Republican governors. Justice Dana Oxley, a Reynolds appointee and one of the seven judges, withdrew from the case because her prior legal practice included a client who was an abortion clinic and a plaintiff in the original lawsuit.
Advocates for reproductive rights applauded the result.
The “heartbeat bill” of 2018, which forbade abortions in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy or, in some circumstances, when an ultrasound first picks up a fetal heartbeat, was the source of Friday’s decision.
In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, many states have imposed six-week prohibitions; nevertheless, the 2018 Iowa law, which was passed that year by the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Reynolds, was the most stringent in the country at the time.
A district court in Iowa swiftly prevented the law from going into effect, finding that it violated the state Constitution, specifically the due process and equal protection clauses. This decision was based on the same legal justifications as the 1973 Roe decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which established federal protections for abortion.
The 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision, which invalidated a proposed obligatory 72-hour waiting period before getting abortion treatment and established that women in Iowa had a “fundamental right” to abortion care, was also referenced in the 2019 district court decision.
Reynolds’ administration did not challenge the judgment for four years. But in a second decision on the 72-hour waiting time case last year, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that abortion was no longer a fundamental right in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of Roe.
Reynolds requested the district court to reinstate the prohibition on six-week abortions after that decision was reversed. Reynolds’ administration appealed the district court’s decision to refuse to do so, and the issue eventually reached the state Supreme Court.