Legal Questions Regarding Iowa's Restrictive Abortion Law By Katherine Slye
Last week the Iowa legislature passed, and the Governor signed, the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation. “The so-called "heartbeat" legislation bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy."
There is a chance it could be upheld in court. The bill includes exceptions for rape, incest or medical emergency, a key consideration in relevant case law.
The six week time frame, when a heartbeat can first be detected, raises practical and legal questions. It is unlikely that a woman would know she is pregnant before 6 weeks, thus eliminating her option of an abortion.
Roe v. Wade said a woman has the right to choose an abortion within the first trimester without any interference from the state. In 1992, the Court changed this standard to allow limits/restrictions on abortion at any time so long as they do not place an “undue burden” upon a woman. This standard is what has led to laws such as waiting periods and informed consent laws.
The argument, if/when opponents challenge this law, would probably be that the six week heartbeat “cutoff” would constitute an undue burden because woman often do not know they are pregnant, or would be unable to realistically get in to have an abortion, until after she is 6 weeks along.
This would then require that a woman carry a pregnancy to term unless she had a medical or life threatening reason to obtain one. If a woman wanted an abortion otherwise, she would be forced to travel to another state with less restrictive laws. This presents a host of other barriers and problems for women, especially low-income women.
Iowa is in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not had many abortion cases in the last 20 years. The most recent abortion case in the Circuit was in 2012. This involved a first amendment free speech argument and the doctors who perform abortions, so we can’t glean much of how the Circuit would rule from this case.
Either way, the decision would likely be appealed no matter the outcome at the Circuit level, so we would really need to look to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on a case involving abortion since President Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch.
As always, speculation is the best we can do when it comes to abortion laws and cases because there are so many variables and ways to consider the situation. This potential case is definitely one to watch in the coming months.
Katherine Slye, MA is a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany working on her dissertation, which examines the past lobbying strategies of abortion interest groups, "How Choice is Made in the Choice Debate."