Iowa House, Senate GOP leaders not co-sponsoring "personhood" bills

While most Iowa politics junkies were absorbed by lengthy collective bargaining debates in the state House and Senate, Republican lawmakers introduced identical “personhood” bills in both chambers on February 14.

Notably, leaders of the House and Senate are not among the co-sponsors of the bills declaring “that life is valued and protected from the moment of conception, and each life, from that moment, is accorded the same rights and protections guaranteed to all persons by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Iowa, and the laws of this state.”

For some time, the first plank of the Republican Party of Iowa’s state platform has advocated a “Life Begins at Conception Bill without exceptions.” Yet the Iowa House has never come close to passing such legislation since Republicans regained control of the chamber in the 2010 elections. During the 2011 session, a personhood bill died in committee, and most Republicans (including the whole leadership team) later voted down an effort to force a floor vote on the legislation.

Personhood bills or constitutional amendments never made it out of Iowa House committees during the 2013 or 2015 legislative sessions either, and the number of House Republicans willing to co-sponsor such bills declined over time.

Arguably, whether the House made a statement for personhood didn’t matter much for the last six years. Like every other measure to restrict reproductive rights, that legislation was destined to die in the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate. Now that Republicans have full control of state government, anti-abortion activists may turn up the pressure to bring a “life begins at conception” bill to Governor Terry Branstad’s desk.

They face long odds, judging by the co-sponsors of Senate File 253 and House File 297.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, Senate President Jack Whitver, and Majority Whip Charles Schneider are not among the twenty Republicans (joined by independent State Senator David Johnson) who are co-sponsoring this year’s personhood bill. Three of the GOP’s four assistant majority leaders (Amy Sinclair, Mike Breitbach, and Randy Feenstra) are co-sponsoring the bill. So is Brad Zaun, a longtime supporter of personhood and new chair of the Judiciary Committee, where the bill was referred.

But even if Zaun brings this legislation out of committee in time for the March 3 “funnel” deadline, the majority leader has the final say on what reaches the Senate floor. Dix and Whitver didn’t say a word about abortion when they outlined their top priorities on the opening day of this year’s legislative session.

Over in the Iowa House, the 23 Republicans co-sponsoring House File 297 include only two members of the leadership team: House Speaker Pro Tem Matt Windschitl and Assistant Majority Leader John Wills. In recent years Windschitl has co-sponsored various anti-abortion measures, including personhood bills or constitutional amendments.

Missing from the list of this year’s personhood co-sponsors: House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, Majority Whip Zach Nunn, and Assistant Majority Leaders Jarad Klein, Megan Jones, and Mike Sexton. None of the above co-sponsored the most restrictive anti-abortion bills introduced in 2015. Klein co-sponsored Windschitl’s personhood bill in 2013, but Upmeyer, Hagenow, and Jones (at that time Megan Hess) did not.

Another ominous sign for House File 297’s prospects in the lower chamber: its sponsors do not include Joel Fry, chair of the Human Resources Committee, where the bill was referred. I was surprised, since Fry supported suspending the rules to force a floor vote on personhood in 2011 and co-sponsored both versions of personhood legislation House Republicans introduced in 2013. Committee chairs have a lot of control over what bills come up for a vote before the “funnel” deadline. Fry’s absence among this year’s co-sponsors may indicate that he is willing to let personhood die in an Iowa House committee yet again.

In their speeches to open this year’s legislative session, Upmeyer did not mention social issues. Hagenow didn’t emphasize that part of the GOP agenda either, though near the end of his remarks, he did promise, “House Republicans will remain committed to protecting unborn life and securing Iowans’ constitutional freedoms.”

Iowa Senate Republicans have already approved a bill to eliminate state funding for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services. House Republicans are sure to pass that bill soon, having voted for similar language the past two years.

Will defunding Planned Parenthood be enough to satisfy the nine Iowa “pro-life” organizations who vowed earlier this year to lobby for anti-abortion bills, including legislation declaring that “life begins at conception”? And if not, what can social conservatives do to press their case with GOP leaders who would rather avoid a high-profile debate over personhood?

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

LATE UPDATE: Asked about personhood at a February 25 legislative forum in Urbandale, Zaun said he hadn’t studied the issue, evoking an angry response: “Your name is on it!” I’m surprised Zaun was non-committal, given that he’s co-sponsored similar legislation multiple times. Perhaps leadership has signaled to him that they don’t want the bill coming out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Following a legislative forum in Clive the same day, a man approached Schneider, thanked him for all his work in the legislature, and expressed hope that “life at conception” would pass, since it’s a very important issue to him. Schneider thanked the man for his comments. I didn’t have the heart to tell the guy that the bill is going nowhere without backing from Schneider and the top Senate Republicans.

FURTHER UPDATE: More detail from a Democrat who attended the Urbandale forum: the question was about section 2 of the personhood bill, which states “The Iowa supreme court shall not have appellate jurisdiction over the provisions of this Act.” In other words, supporters want to prevent the Iowa Supreme Court from declaring “life begins at conception” unconstitutional–a very likely outcome, considering this court unanimously rejected the telemedicine abortion ban as too restrictive of Iowa women’s rights. Zaun claimed he wasn’t familiar with the bill he is co-sponsoring.

Strangely, just two days before Zaun told constituents in Urbandale that he wasn’t familiar with the bill, he assigned Senate File 253 to a new subcommittee including himself, Democratic Senator Janet Petersen, and Republican Senator Jason Schultz as chair. The original subcommittee was chaired by Sinclair, with Petersen and Schultz.

Why did Judiciary Committee Chair Zaun reassign this bill, which he claims not to have studied, and go to the trouble of putting himself on the subcommittee? Was he trying to ensure that it gets through the “funnel”coming up on Friday, March 3, or putting himself in a position to kill it?

Note: Sinclair is the only woman in the Iowa Senate GOP caucus. She took a lot of heat as the front person for the bill defunding Planned Parenthood. Could she be having cold feet about personhood now, even though she co-sponsored the bill?

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