Senate to focus on Council Bluffs clinic; abortion bill's fate uncertain

Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Joe Bolkcom announced today that he will introduce new legislation designed to stop Omaha-based Dr. Leroy Carhart from opening an abortion clinic in Council Bluffs.

Follow me after the jump for background on Bolkcom's new proposal and prospects for House File 657, the 20-week abortion ban the Iowa House approved earlier this year. Bolkcom has been assigned to floor-manage House File 657 if and when the upper chamber debates that bill.

UPDATE: Added comments from Governor Terry Branstad and Bolkcom below.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Bolkcom revealed further details on the new bill; his statement is at the end of this post.

House File 657 is modeled on a Nebraska statute that bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks. Some Republicans have warned Iowa will become the "abortion capital of the Midwest" if legislators do not approve a similar statute.

For weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, whose district includes Council Bluffs, had indicated that he would let House File 657 work through the committee process. Meanwhile, Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee Chair Tom Courtney suggested there was not enough time left in the session to review the bill adequately. House File 657 contains language that could adversely affect pregnant women's health in various ways.

Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan appealed to the Iowa Senate in late April to move on this bill, but Courtney continued to indicate that action this year was unlikely.

However, a majority of state senators can pull a bill out of committee by signing a discharge petition. On May 3, Democrats Joe Seng and Tom Hancock joined all 24 Republican state senators in doing so. Hancock explained,

"I am a pro-life, Catholic Democrat," Hancock told The Iowa Independent Friday. "I have never wavered on my stance on abortion."

Hancock called the caucus atmosphere "diverse" when it comes to House File 657, though it was not characterized as tense. Gronstal has not given adverse indication toward the decision Hancock and Seng made to force the bill to the floor, Hancock said.

"Not everyone feels like I do," he said. "There's just a very diverse feeling in our caucus on this bill."

The discharge petition can't force a vote on the floor--that's ultimately the majority leader's call. Gronstal suggested last week that he wouldn't prevent a vote on House File 657, although he expressed strong misgivings about the bill in this May 3 statement:

"I share Mayor Tom Hanafan's opposition to making Council Bluffs the home for a new clinic that specializes in late-term abortions. I support efforts in my hometown to keep Dr. Carhart out of Council Bluffs. Throughout my years at the Statehouse, I have focused my efforts on making abortion less necessary, not making them more dangerous and difficult. I don't like abortion.

"I also know that second trimester abortions are almost always a decision by a woman that desperately wants to be pregnant but something has gone tragically wrong with her pregnancy. Making a decision about what to do at that point is a gut wrenching decision that should be made by a woman, her family and her doctor. I believe that a woman has a right to make her own personal, private decision about abortion without the interference of politicians."

The Republican Party of Iowa started placing robocalls in Council Bluffs last week to create the impression that Gronstal was blocking this bill:

"Without immediate action from our Senator, Mike Gronstal, a late-term abortionist will call our community home and make Council Bluffs the abortion capital of the Midwest. Only Mike Gronstal stands in the way of a bipartisan move to force a vote in the Iowa Senate to stop this abortionist and save our community. Call Mike Gronstal at 515-281-3371, and tell him to listen to his constituents, allow a vote in the Senate, and keep this abortionist out of our Council Bluffs."

The calls prompted Council Bluffs Mayor Hanafan to come to Gronstal's defense,

"I think that this is more than about the bill. I think this is all about politics now. Obviously, the Republican Party would like to oust Mike," said Hanafan, who has been registered as a Republican and as a Democrat in recent years. [...]

"I have talked with Mike, and I have given him my opinion on this bill," Hanafan said. "I think Mike will do the right thing."

During the past week, senators from both parties have discussed offering amendments to alleviate concerns about House File 657. Republican Senator David Johnson suggested removing language that declares "life begins at fertilization," as well as restrictions on where late-term abortions can be provided and a requirement that a woman face an "immediate" medical emergency in order to terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks.

Speaking to reporters on May 9, Bolkcom said he had been working on amendments to make House File 657 conform to the constitution: "I don't think we should be about passing laws that we know on their face are unconstitutional, especially looking at the 20-week outright ban." Bolkcom added that he was focused on "the establishment of this clinic in Council Bluffs." Similarly, Gronstal told Iowa Public Radio yesterday,

"The legislation as drafted by the House I think significantly invites a very serious court challenge," Gronstal said today on Iowa Public Radio. "So I think we're trying to look at some ways to fix that up in such a way that we can guarantee a new, late-term abortion clinic doesn't open in Council Bluffs."

This morning Bolkcom indicated that he will start from scratch with a new bill. From the Iowa Senate press release of May 10:

"I share most Iowans' goal of preventing Dr. Carhart from moving his practice to Iowa. That's why I'll be introducing a new bill later this week in the Ways and Means Committee that will prevent him from coming to Iowa.

"What I won't do is endanger a woman's health and safety. As the House-passed bill is drafted right now, there's no exception for life of the mother, rape, incest or fetus abnormalities that would prevent the baby from surviving after it's born.

"Not every pregnancy ends the way a family hopes it will. A woman with a wanted pregnancy that goes terribly wrong must face an awful decision that none of us ever want to face. A Nebraska-style total ban will only make a difficult situation worse, and that's no place for politicians to meddle.

"Republicans know this. Their version of the bill is a political ploy. In fact, according to key supporter Senator Johnson said in an interview last week that 'the bill makes it more dangerous for pregnant women with a medical emergency to have to wait until the last minute if the woman truly needs an abortion after 20 weeks.'

"What's more, constitutional experts say the bill as drafted is blatantly unconstitutional. There's not much point in passing an unconstitutional bill that will only embroil Iowa in an expensive court battle.

"We can all agree that there should be fewer abortions. I hope Senate Republicans will put politics aside and help me pass legislation that will prevent Dr. Carhart from coming to Iowa."

I sought to clarify whether Bolkcom's new bill means House File 657 is now dead in the upper chamber. Iowa Senate communications staff responded that "it is still uncertain" whether the 20-week abortion ban will be debated on the Senate floor.

There's no guarantee the Iowa House will go along with a narrowly-targeted bill to prevent a Council Bluffs clinic. Some Republican state representatives were already upset that House File 657 didn't go further to restrict abortions. reported yesterday,

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, would have to see Bolkcom's amendments before taking a position.

"Iowans clearly indicated they want this addressed," Paulsen said. "If (senators) have a better way, I'm happy to look at it."

However, if the Senate language skirts the issue, the House won't support it.

"The bill has to address the issue," he said.

Republican Governor Terry Branstad has urged senators to approve the 20-week abortion ban. I am seeking comment from the governor on Bolkcom's latest proposal.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Branstad's communications director Tim Albrecht responded that the governor "supports efforts to prevent Dr. Carhart from locating in Iowa. He will continue to monitor legislative progress." That statement doesn't make clear whether the governor considers a late-term abortion ban a necessary element of "efforts to prevent Dr. Carhart from locating in Iowa."

Bolkcom confirmed on May 10 that he is still working on amendments to House File 657, to try to make that bill constitutional. Whether it will be debated on the Senate floor this year has "yet to be determined."

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: From an Iowa Senate press release of May 11:

Common sense abortion facility bill introduced

Statement from Senator Joe Bolkcom

"Today I'm introducing a new bill in the Ways and Means Committee, Senate Study Bill 1212, that is consistent with Iowans' values, does not endanger a woman's health or safety, and takes measures to ensure we provide the appropriate standard of care necessary to save lives."

"The bill is available on the web at

"The bill uses the Certificate of Need process to ensure that a new abortion facility which performs abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization is in close proximity to an Iowa hospital with the appropriate level of perinatal care to protect the life or health of the woman and the fetus.

"As we engage in this debate, we need to be honest about the circumstances under which a woman pursues these procedures. In 2009, there were only 6 abortions in Iowa that occurred after 20 weeks, and all of them involved some kind of medical complication.

"This bill protects the life and health of the mother and the fetus when a woman is faced with this terrible choice. What it doesn't do is meddle in a family's gut-wrenching decision about what to do when a planned pregnancy goes terribly wrong.

"I expect to hold a subcommittee on this bill at 3:45PM tomorrow."

Here's a link to the full text of Senate Study Bill 1212.

  • Politics

    If we don't stop the clinic, they (socially conservative Republicans) have their motivational tool to rally the base for the election.  We have to do something even though I personally disagree with the stopping of the clinic.  Procreational decisions should not come down to politics, but at the same time I think we will be forced to do something.  

    • I think

      this bill would have died in the Senate if Dr. Carhart were trying to move his clinic to Iowa City or Des Moines. The clinic's existence would still be a rallying point for the conservative base statewide, but having this controversy in Gronstal's district is what's pushing pro-choice Democrats to work on this issue.

      Women need to have safe options for medical care, whatever the circumstances of their pregnancies.

  • Gronstal's position doesn't make sense.

    If access to late-term abortions are such a necessity, then why isn't Gronstal (and others) celebrating the idea that Carhart might move here?

    If you think the service is essential, then you have to support the service provider. One of Gronstal's positions is dishonest. He should be called on it.

    • fair point

      I don't know how he would respond.

      Dr. Carhart's clinic would serve women from many states and would attract protesters on a regular basis. Probably lots of people who support abortion rights in principle would rather not have his clinic in their neighborhood, but the service provider needs to be able to work somewhere.

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