New abortion restrictions could stall in the Iowa House

Iowa Republicans vowed late last year to pass new abortion restrictions modeled on a Nebraska statute which in effect bans the procedure after the 20th week of gestation. Abortions are already illegal in Iowa after the sixth month of pregnancy except if a doctor believes the procedure could “preserve the life or health” of the pregnant woman. The new bill, House File 5, asserts that an “unborn child” can experience pain after the 20th week of gestation and bans abortions after that time unless “The pregnant woman has a condition which the physician deems a medical emergency” or “It is necessary to preserve the life of the unborn child.”

Very few abortions are performed in Iowa after the 20th week of pregnancy. In 2006 just nine out of more than 6,700 abortions occurred at the 21th week of gestation or later. Of the 5,829 abortions performed in Iowa in 2009, only six were induced after the 20th week. However, Republicans want to prevent Dr. LeRoy Carhart from opening a clinic in Council Bluffs to serve women seeking abortions after 20 weeks. Carhart had worked with Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas for more than a decade but moved to Omaha after Tiller’s assassination in 2009. The new Nebraska law prompted Carhart to close his Omaha clinic. Last month he began working at a Maryland clinic.

Iowa House Republican leaders have expressed confidence about passing new abortion restrictions. They have a 60 to 40 majority with no pro-choice members of their caucus. I believe this legislation could pass the Iowa Senate, because unlike the 1980s and 1990s, there are no longer any pro-choice Republicans to cancel out the votes of Democrats supporting more restrictions on reproductive rights. Governor Terry Branstad would be eager to sign any anti-choice bill.

However, Craig Robinson reported yesterday that House File 5 lacks the votes to clear the Iowa House Human Resources Committee. Two of the most conservative first-term GOP legislators, Kim Pearson and Glen Massie, serve on that committee and oppose the bill, presumably because it would not go far enough to restrict abortions. Without their support, Republicans can count on only 10 votes in the 21-member committee. According to Robinson, Iowa Right to Life, the Iowa Catholic Conference, and the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition all support House File 5. But the FAMiLY LEADER organization led by Bob Vander Plaats and others from the Iowa Family Policy Center oppose the bill.

Pearson and Massie will face tremendous pressure to change their position. I wouldn’t be surprised if they vote for House File 5 after all. But if they resist carrots or sticks Republican leaders wave at them, the bill could be dead for the 2011 session.

Speaking of reproductive rights, no one in the House Republican caucus seems to realize that the family planning spending cuts in House File 45, which passed the chamber on January 19, would likely increase the number of early abortions performed in Iowa. It’s sadly typical for anti-choice politicians to oppose effective means to prevent unintended pregnancies.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth posted a good rundown on the GOP split over this bill.

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