Abortions in Iowa will for now remain legal up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy after a judge on Monday temporarily blocked the state’s newly signed law that would ban the procedure as early as six weeks.
The suit was filed last week by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the Emma Goldman Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, who jumped into action hours after the bill was sent to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk to block the measure from immediately going into effect with her signature.
The law will now be placed on hold until the court can issue a final decision, according to the ruling.
Polk County District Judge Joseph Seidlin will, however, allow Iowa’s board of medicine to begin drafting its guidelines on how physicians would be punished for violating the law: “Should the injunction entered today ultimately be dissolved, it would only benefit all involved, patients and providers alike, to have rules in place to administer the law.”
In a statement after the ruling, Reynolds promised to take the case to the state Supreme Court, adding, “While Life was protected for a few days, now even more innocent babies will be lost.”
Senate File 579 would prohibit physicians from providing most abortions after early cardiac activity can be detected in a fetus or embryo, commonly as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.
It includes exceptions for miscarriages, when the life of the pregnant woman is threatened and fetal abnormalities that would result in the infant’s death. It also includes exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rapes reported within 45 days and incest reported within 140 days.
While the bill language makes clear it is “not to be construed to impose civil or criminal liability on a woman upon whom an abortion is performed in violation of the division,” guidelines on how physicians would be punished for violating the law are left up to Iowa’s board of medicine to decide – leaving the potential for some vagueness in how the law ought to be enforced in the interim.
The temporary injunction is the latest roadblock in Republican efforts to enact restrictions on abortion in the state. Last month, Iowa’s Supreme Court declined to lift a block on the state’s 2018 six-week abortion ban, deadlocking in a 3-3 vote whether to overturn a lower court decision that had deemed the law unconstitutional.
The new bill and its 2018 predecessor are nearly identical, though the latter was not enacted immediately, granting the board of medicine time to flesh out how it planned to administer the law.
Seidlin in his decision leaned heavily on a legal test that considers whether a regulation puts an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion – which the state Supreme Court had upheld as Iowa’s governing standard for regulating abortion the week before Roe v. Wade was struck down.
The judge said the new law enacted after the reversal of federal abortion protections could prompt the court to revisit the “undue burden” standard, but in the meantime he would follow the precedent of his state’s highest court.
“This court does not get to declare that our Supreme Court got it wrong and then impose a different standard. Such would be an alarming exercise of judicial activism,” Seidlin said. “This court is bound to decide this matter pursuant to the instruction of our Supreme Court.”
The legal advocacy groups in a joint statement said the law “violates Iowans’ constitutional rights to abortion and substantive due process.”
“Today’s ruling means patients across Iowa will be able to access abortion care and retain control over their bodies and futures. We are proud to continue providing the care our patients need and deserve,” said Ruth Richardson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States. “The fight to preserve Iowans’ fundamental right to reproductive freedom is far from over. We will continue to oppose this egregious, unconstitutional ban as it works its way through the courts.”
Other legal challenges to abortion restrictions have been met with mixed results, with a South Carolina judge temporarily blocking the state’s six-week ban in May, while a judge in North Carolina allowed her state’s 12-week ban to go into effect last month.
This story has been updated with additional information.