Update on abortion bills in the Iowa legislature

Anti-abortion legislation that stalled earlier this year in an Iowa House committee appears likely to pass the lower chamber soon. House File 5 would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, using a “fetal pain” standard adapted from a similar bill in Nebraska. More than 30 House Republicans are co-sponsoring the bill, hoping to deter Omaha-based abortion provider Dr. Leroy Carhart from opening a clinic in Council Bluffs.

Recent news on House File 5 and a related “personhood” bill is after the jump.

House leaders referred House File 5 to the Human Resources Committee during the first week of this year’s legislative session. However, two Republicans on that committee, Kim Pearson and Glen Massie, pledged to vote against the bill because it does not in their view go far enough to stop abortions in Iowa. (Just six of the 5,829 abortions performed in Iowa in 2009 were induced after the 20th week of pregnancy.) Without support from Pearson and Massie, the bill lacked the votes to get out of Human Resources.

House leaders reassigned House File 5 last month to the Government Oversight Committee, chaired by State Representative Chris Hagenow. The ranking Democrat on that committee, Janet Petersen, criticized the “bizarre move,” noting that abortion “not a good fit” for Government Oversight. Last week Hagenow led a subcommittee that voted to send the bill to a full committee vote. Pearson, Massie and a third like-minded first-term House Republican, Tom Shaw, still oppose House File 5 because it “does not protect innocent life from conception.” However, they don’t have the votes to stop it in the Government Oversight Committee or on the floor, where Republicans have a 60 to 40 majority. In all likelihood House File 5 will clear the lower chamber next week.

According to this report by Andrew Duffelmeyer,

There is some disagreement about whether [House File 5] would be subject to the April 1 deadline, when rules dictate House bills must be approved by a Senate committee to be considered during the rest of the session.

Bills from the oversight committee are typically not subject to the deadline, but the abortion measure is likely to be considered by the Senate Human Resources Committee when it reaches the Senate. Bills in that committee are subject to the deadline.

Democratic State Senator Amanda Ragan chairs the Senate Human Resources Committee. She is pro-choice, so while she told Duffelmeyer she would consider House File 5, I doubt she would rush to get it through her committee by April 1.

If House File 5 does advance to the Senate floor, it will probably pass. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal represents the area where Carhart’s clinic would be located. He hasn’t taken a position on House File 5 yet but said recently, “I think an awful lot of people in Council Bluffs think it would be a mistake to open a new clinic in Council Bluffs […] I think they’re asking for anything that can help stop that.” Gronstal is already the top target for Iowa Republicans in the 2012 elections.

Governor Terry Branstad said today he would sign a ban on late abortions: “I think we need to take whatever practical steps we can to prevent this late-term abortionists from moving from Nebraska to Iowa.”

A broader anti-abortion bill, House File 153, passed a House Human Resources subcommittee last month but did not make it through the “funnel” deadline for clearing a House committee. In theory, that means it is dead for the 2011 session, but there’s always a chance the language could be attached to a different legislative vehicle and approved later. Commonly known as the “personhood” bill, House File 153 would protect all human life in Iowa “from the moment of conception.” It could be interpreted as banning certain forms of birth control and could create other legal issues as well.

Even if the personhood bill is not resurrected, House File 5 contains similar wording. During last week’s subcommittee hearing, State Representative Janet Petersen asked Hagenow about a portion of House File 5 that reads,

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed as creating or recognizing a right to an abortion. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed as determining life to begin at twenty weeks’ gestation. Instead, it is recognized that life begins at conception.

Petersen said that language “raised concerns with her that such a law would be applied to criminal laws, vital record requirements or even tax laws. She was assured by Rep. Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, that such language would not be applicable to other laws.” Randall Wilson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa told the Des Moines Register that the wording suggests

“the legislature is trying to establish an across-the-board rule as to when personhood starts […] If construed in that way it could be very problematic for legal abortions and other statutes.” […]

If complete eradication of abortion is not the intent of House File 5, then that intent should be specifically written in the law, Wilson said.  Otherwise such laws as homicide could be attached to someone who terminates a pregnancy even when it is well before even the 20-week cutoff, he said.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland spokesman Kyle Carlson suggested that this passage of House File 5 may be intended to provide grounds for a lawsuit, which could eventually overturn the legal precedent set by the 1983 Roe v Wade decision.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that House Republicans are trying to add language to the human services budget to ban Medicaid from covering abortion in cases of rape or incest. The Quad-City Times published a scathing editorial about that on March 20:

No Medicaid-funded abortions have been sought in Iowa from women impregnated through rape or incest in the past year. Still, pro-life House Republicans insist the next Iowa human services budget contain a provision outlawing public payment for aborting pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

That philosophy sparks quite a debate in the Statehouse and on the campaign trail. But if an Iowa woman is impregnated by a rapist, the resolution of her pregnancy won’t be through some theoretical discussion in a Statehouse chamber. It will require a decision. Iowa House Republicans acted decisively to assure if the victim is a poor woman, that decision won’t be hers to make.

Instead, they decided for her. They decided she’ll carry that pregnancy to term, then face the wrenching decision of giving up the rapist’s child or supporting it for the rest of her life.

In making that decision, pro-life Republicans implicitly elevated the rapist’s will above his victim. If a rapist is hell-bent on impregnating his victim – think of an ex-wife or estranged girlfriend – he can do it. As horrible, if some twisted father impregnates his daughter, she’s stuck with bearing his decision.

Philosophically, amendment proponent and human services appropriations committee chairman Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, says he and his Republican caucus value the potential life of that rapist’s fetus over the liberty of the rape victim.

“My caucus feels very strongly that in the case of rape and incest that the person inside that woman’s body is innocent to the act,” Heaton told the Des Moines Register.

“Even though he was born under horrific circumstances, he’s an innocent person that’s entitled to live a full life.”

No matter to Heaton that U.S. Supreme Court rulings consider that unborn fetus quite differently. According to this House vote, GOP pro-lifers and rapists have more control over the rape victim’s body than the victim herself. […]

The Des Moines Register reported Iowa Medicaid in the last year paid for 27 abortions, five to save the life of the mother and 22 in cases that met the criteria for a deformed fetus.

LATE UPDATE: House File 5 passed out of the House Government Oversight Committee on March 23. It was then renamed House File 657. A small change of wording affects the passage I excerpted above. It now reads:

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed as creating or recognizing a right to an abortion. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed as determining life to begin at twenty weeks’ gestation. Instead, it is recognized that life begins at fertilization.

I don’t know whether changing “conception” to “fertilization” would make any difference if this law were challenged in court. Presumably the wording was amended because many other portions of the bill refer to fertilization or the amount of time after fertilization rather than “conception.”

About the Author(s)