Around the Archdiocese

Legal challenges put Iowa’s heartbeat law on hold

State’s attorney general refuses to defend legislation

By Barb Arland-Fye

The Catholic Messenger

DES MOINES — A new Iowa law prohibiting abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected has been placed on hold while lawyers on opposing sides of a lawsuit prepare their cases.

The America Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as co-counsel, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and its medical director, Jill Meadows, MD. Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City is a co-plaintiff in the case.

Plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of Senate File 359, the so-called fetal heartbeat bill. A heartbeat can be detected in an unborn baby at around six weeks of age, before some women may realize they are pregnant. The law was to take effect July 1 and would have provided few exceptions for abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. On June 1, a Polk County District Court judge granted a temporary injunction placing the law on hold as the lawsuit gets underway.

In a statement on Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s website, Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said, “This abortion ban is beyond extreme. With it, Iowa politicians have tried to ban virtually all abortions for women in our state.”  Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said, “We are challenging this law on behalf of our patients and all Iowans.” She said the state’s citizens “reject attempts to restrict an individual’s rights and ability to control their own destiny.”

Thomas More Society, a not-for-profit, national public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty, is representing the state. The Chicago-based law firm agreed to do so because Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller disqualified himself from defending the new statute.

Miller determined that “he could not zealously assert the state’s position because of his core belief that the statute, if upheld, would undermine the rights and protection for women,” Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson said. He made that statement in a May 15 letter recommending that the Executive Council authorize Thomas More Society to represent the state. The law firm has agreed to handle the litigation on a pro bono basis.

Thomas More Society agreed to take the case because “it’s a very significant piece of legislation, the most restrictive abortion legislation measure ever enacted in the 50 states that we are aware of,” said Tom Brejcha, the law firm’s president and chief counsel. “I think it’s very important that the pro-life movement engage the opposition on these matters.”

Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, a former lawyer, said, “I was a little surprised and disappointed that the attorney general chose not to defend the state, but I am thankful that the Thomas More Society stepped into the breach.”

Iowa’s Constitution does not provide for a right to abortion. The plaintiffs are saying that right should be established, and they are suing in this case to establish it, Brejcha said. “We’re saying it’s never been established and should not be established. Iowa is and should remain a pro-life state.”

The state’s Supreme Court justices “have not really found a robust right to an abortion yet in the (Iowa) Constitution,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. But, “they did allude to it at the state constitutional level when the state Supreme Court struck down the webcam rule, which would have outlawed webcam abortions in 2015.”

Pro-life supporters hope that a change in the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court will result in overturning Roe v. Wade, thus leaving the decision to the states to determine whether to legalize or ban abortion.

“I think there’s a very strong and powerful constituency that believes there shouldn’t be abortion on demand, which is what this case is all about,” Brejcha said. “I think the statistics show that there is more pro-life sentiment than some people claim, especially in Iowa.”

Another legal battle related to abortion is playing out in the state court system. In 2017, the Iowa Legislature passed a law, known as the Iowa Act, which banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That law included a section that required a three-day waiting period before an abortion. The 20-week ban is in force, but the waiting period is on hold, pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, a local affiliate of the nation’s largest abortion provider, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to rule in this case before the end of June.

Arland-Fye is editor of the Catholic Messenger of the Diocese of Davenport. Dan Russo, editor of The Witness, contributed to this report.