Jul 13, 2022 - Politics

The future of abortion in Iowa lies in the courts' hands

Illustration of a caduceus turning into a gavel.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said going through the courts' system is her "preferred strategy" to try to restrict abortions in the state during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Calling for a special session to pass new abortion laws would be fruitless at this point, said Derek Muller, a law professor at the University of Iowa.

  • There are a number of hurdles anti-abortion advocates still need to get through in court, despite the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last month.

State of play: There are two different court cases and anticipated rulings that need to play out to determine the future of abortion in Iowa, Muller said.

  • One is the rehearing of a case surrounding a 24-hour abortion waiting period that passed in 2020, Muller said.
  • A Johnson County district court will assess if the waiting period is an "undue burden" for a person seeking an abortion in Iowa — a measure that was created from a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that was overturned along with Roe V. Wade called Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Flashback: Historically, courts around the U.S. have found that lawmakers can pass restrictions like a 24-hour abortion waiting period under the "undue burden" standard, but they can't pass a stricter six-week abortion ban, Muller said, which is what Reynolds ultimately wants.

  • Reynolds asked the state supreme court to rehear the 24-hour abortion waiting period case in light of Roe v. Wade being overturned, but it declined, leaving it up to the Johnson County court to decide the standard.

The second case that needs to play out is the governor's request for a Polk County district court to lift an injunction that blocked a fetal heartbeat law that passed in 2018.

  • Iowa's law bans most abortions after six weeks.

What they're saying: Muller expects a district court will note that the heartbeat law creates an "undue burden" and the case will move up to the Iowa Supreme Court who can make the ultimate decision to uphold it or not.

  • If the supreme court decides the "undue burden" clause should no longer stand in Iowa, then the standard for restricting abortions will lower, according to Muller.

What's next: None of this is fast moving, Muller said. Expect rulings to take six months to a year.

The bottom line: It would be redundant and unnecessary for Republican lawmakers to try and pass new laws restricting abortion while the court assesses Iowa’s post Roe v. Wade landscape.

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