Branstad nominees held accountable for violating women's constitutional rights

Iowa Senate Democrats held two members of the Iowa Board of Medicine accountable yesterday for hasty action in 2013 to approve an anti-abortion rule that had no scientific basis and was later found unconstitutional by a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court.

Iowa Board of Medicine Chair Diane Clark and fellow board member Dr. Hamed Tewfik became the first (and probably the only) nominees for state boards or commissions to be rejected by the Iowa Senate this year. Republicans are predictably denouncing the vote as “petty partisan politics.” But senators have confirmed without dissent the overwhelming majority of more than 200 people Governor Terry Branstad selected.

Clark and Tewfik have only themselves to blame for losing their prestigious positions.

With only 20 seats in the 50-member Senate, Democrats have been powerless to block most of the Republican agenda during this legislative session. But gubernatorial nominees require a two-thirds vote to be confirmed, and Clark and Tewfik both fell two votes short of the 34 needed yesterday. Senators Tod Bowman and Kevin Kinney were the only Democrats to join the 29 Republicans and independent Senator David Johnson to approve the confirmations.

State Senator Janet Petersen led the Democratic opposition to Clark and Tewfik, urging colleagues “to support the constitutional rights of Iowa women” and “safe medical care, not politics.” Challenged by GOP Senator Randy Feenstra about what he called a “political” vote against Tewfik, Petersen explained, “This is the Board of Medicine. This is the Board of Medicine. This is not Governor Branstad and [Lieutenant Governor] Kim Reynolds’ board that they stack with people who won’t back a woman’s constitutional right for a legal medical procedure.”

During the summer of 2013, eight of the ten Board of Medicine members moved quickly to act on a petition for rulemaking from anti-abortion groups, even though legal counsel from the Attorney General’s Office “advised the Board to delay accepting the petition,” and the board’s “director of legal affairs similarly stated that the Board was taking action without fully considering the issues in the petition.”

Later that summer, the same eight board members approved a rule banning the use of telemedicine for abortion, affecting six Planned Parenthood clinics that had been offering medical abortions through a remote video link since 2008. Board members claimed to be acting to protect patients, even though there was no evidence of adverse outcomes among more than 5,000 Iowa women who had terminated pregnancies this way, and even though the board had adopted a different rule encouraging the use of telemedicine for other health care services.

The Iowa Supreme Court found in 2015 that the board “appears to hold abortion to a different medical standard than other procedures” and had placed “an undue burden on a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy as defined by the United States Supreme Court in its federal constitutional precedents.”

Notably, three Branstad nominees concurred in that Supreme Court ruling, including the court’s most conservative current members, Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman. In numerous other cases, Mansfield and Waterman have deferred to executive branch authority. In a partial concurrence that later formed the basis for a majority ruling upholding Iowa’s near-total lifetime ban on voting by convicted felons, Mansfield acknowledged that he disagreed with state policy on the issue, but said “my personal views do not carry weight when it comes to interpreting the Iowa Constitution.” If the Board of Medicine had had any legitimate grounds to enact the telemedicine ban, at least some of the Supreme Court justices would have upheld the action.

But this case wasn’t even close. The Board of Medicine overstepped its authority and catered to activists who want abortion of any kind to be less accessible to Iowans. If courts had not blocked the telemedicine rule, Clark and Tewfik would have placed new barriers before women seeking early medical abortions, thereby increasing the number likely to seek more risky second-trimester surgical abortions later. So much for the board’s feigned concern about safety.

On the Senate floor yesterday, Feenstra accused Democrats of trying to take down an immigrant (Tewfik) who “didn’t do what you wanted him to do.” He chastised Petersen for rejecting this doctor over “one vote of several hundred” taken since Tewfik joined the board in 2011. “Yes, and it’s a very important vote,” Petersen replied calmly.

As they say, elections have consequences. So do unconstitutional, unscientific votes on what is supposed to be a medical board.

P.S.- Democratic Senator Tony Bisignano was on fire during his point of personal privilege on April 19. He noted Democrats had watched Branstad “hand-pick that Board of Medicine for the specific purpose to shut down the opportunity that women had for the right to choose. That’s their right. You don’t respect that that’s their right, but by the constitution it is their right.” So “In good conscience we decided we’d had enough. We had enough with what the Board of Medicine did.” Bisignano was outraged that Feenstra–who represents a district from U.S. Representative Steve King’s part of the state–had lectured Democrats about “tolerance” for immigrants after the vote against Tewfik. A first-generation American who grew up in an immigrant neighborhood of Des Moines, Bisignano said it was a “cheap move” and “shameful” for Feenstra to play that card during the confirmation debate.

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