Iowa Senate passes abortion clinic bill on party-line vote

On a party-line 26 to 23 vote, the Iowa Senate today approved a bill to restrict the locations of clinics where abortions are performed after 20 weeks gestation. Senators also rejected an attempt to bring up a broader ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

Follow me after the jump for background and details on the Senate debate, including the various amendments Republicans offered.

Democrats had planned for the full Senate to consider Senate File 534 last Thursday, after the bill cleared the Appropriations Committee. However, Republican Senator Kent Sorenson refused to give unanimous consent to bring up the bill at that time. Senate File 534 was consequently put on the Senate’s calendar for today. The Senate Journal for May 16 (pdf) shows the roll calls and the order in which motions and amendments were offered.

Shortly after the session began, Sorenson offered a motion “that the Senate resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to consider House File 657.” That bill would ban most abortions after 20 weeks gestation, making exceptions only when the pregnant woman’s life is in “immediate” danger. Sorenson’s motion failed when all 26 Senate Democrats voted against it, but all 23 Republicans present supported his effort.

After Sorenson’s motion, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal brought up Senate File 534. Democrats wrote that bill with the goal of stopping Dr. Leroy Carhart from opening a clinic in Council Bluffs to perform late-term abortions. Instead of restricting abortion rights for women, the bill sets new requirements for “specialized outpatient surgical facilities” to receive a “certificate of need.” Among other things, a specialized outpatient surgical facility would have to be located in “close proximity to a hospital that is a level II neonatology center or level III center.”

Republicans have objected that Senate File 534 would not prevent Dr. Carhart or another provider from opening a clinic to provide late-term abortion services. Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport all contain hospitals with high-level neonatal care.

Senator Bolkcom told me on May 16 that before approving an application for a certificate of need, Iowa Department of Public Health staff and the State Health Facilities Council consider many factors, including whether the facility is necessary. He expressed doubt that a free-standing clinic providing abortions after 20 weeks gestation would be needed in Iowa, given how few pregnancies are terminated at that stage annually. (Of the 5,829 abortions performed in Iowa in 2009, only six occurred after 20 weeks gestation.) Bolkcom added that all five members of the State Health Facilities Council are appointees of Governor Terry Branstad, as is Department of Public Health Director Mariannette Miller-Meeks (an opponent of abortion rights).

Republicans tried several times today to change the focus of Senate File 534. Senator Mark Chelgren offered the first three amendments. One would replace the entire text of the bill with the language found in House File 657, banning abortions after 20 weeks gestation except “in the case of a medical emergency.” Bolkcom raised a point of order, and Senate President Jack Kibbie ruled that amendment not germane to the bill.

Chelgren’s second and third proposed amendments would amend Iowa Code to define “feticide” or “attempted feticide” as occurring after 20 weeks gestation, rather than after the second trimester of pregnancy (as under current law). Bolkcom raised points of order on each of these amendments, and Kibbie ruled them both not germane to Senate File 534.

Senator Joni Ernst then offered an amendment to define any hospital in which surgical abortions are performed as a “specialized outpatient surgical facility.” The original text of Senate File 534 defines such facilities as places “in which surgical abortion procedures are performed after the fetus has attained a postfertilization age of twenty weeks or more.” Ernst’s and fellow Republican Senator Bill Dix’s amendment was defeated on a party-line 26 to 23 vote.

Senator Merlin Bartz offered an amendment introducing county population requirements that would rule out any available location for a “specialized outpatient surgical facility” in Iowa. Again, the amendment went down on a party-line 26 to 23 vote.

Bolkcom then moved for a final reading of Senate File 534, after which the bill passed on a party-line 26 to 23 vote. The Senate approved an immediate message to the House and adjourned until May 19.

Iowa House leaders indicated last week that House Republicans are unlikely to approve Senate File 534. If the bill passed the lower chamber, it’s not clear whether the governor would sign it. At a May 16 press conference before today’s Senate session, Branstad told reporters that he hadn’t seen the certificate of need bill but would rather see the House-approved late-term abortion ban, which is modeled on a Nebraska statute. Bolkcom told me that he hoped Branstad would sign the certificate of need bill if it reached his desk, but said he’d had no indication from the governor’s office whether Branstad would support that approach.

Whether the Senate will consider House File 657 before adjourning for the year also remains uncertain. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, the bill seemed stuck in the Senate Government Oversight Committee until all 24 Senate Republicans, joined by two Democrats, signed a discharge petition to pull it out of committee. Bolkcom is floor-managing House File 657 and said last week that Democrats were working on amendments to make it constitutional. He has not made a final decision on bringing it up for a vote.

UPDATE: More details from senators’ speeches on May 16. First, from Republicans who opposed Senate File 534:

“I am sick that this bill actually sets up a pathway for late-term abortionists to set up work here in Iowa. I call this “the late-term abortionists’ invitation bill,” ” said Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, remarked, “I am really concerned why we are doing this bill and if it is being done for the right reasons. I struggle because a baby’s life is important and none of us should have the ability to take that away.”

Chelgren discounted Democratic claims that the bill would prevent a new abortion clinic from locating in Iowa:

“Senate File 534 might feel good, but it’s not going to do a darn thing,” state Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said of the Democratic approach, noting that the bill likely won’t be taken up by the Republican-controlled House.

“We can say that this bill, Senate File 534, is about protecting babies or protecting mothers, but when the House and Senate fail to do anything, the reality is, we’re going to have an abortion clinic here,” Chelgren said. “Because we failed to come together to get anything done once again.”

Bolkcom countered that House File 657 would almost certainly be challenged in court:

But he maintained the House bill is unconstitutional, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can’t ban abortions of possibly viable fetuses before 24 weeks – and this bill would ban abortions at 20 weeks.

“There is no point in passing an unconstitutional bill that will only embroil Iowa in an expensive court battle,” he said. “I hope that we can come together and focus on passing legislation that is consistent with Iowa values.”

Gronstal has the most to lose politically if no bill passes this year, because he represents Council Bluffs, where the mayor and many residents oppose a new abortion clinic. Speaking on the Senate floor Monday,

Gronstal said he is confident that because a small number of late-term abortions are performed in Iowa each year – six in 2009 – state health officials would not approve any new late-term abortion facilities in Iowa. […]

“What you have in front of you today is a bill that will make it incredibly unlikely, but not impossible,” for such an abortion clinic to be established in Iowa, Gronstal said. He contended a bill already approved by the Iowa House to block most Iowa abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy would likely be declared unconstitutional.

“I reel at the thought of an abortion, but I also reel at the thought of telling a woman she has to take to term a baby that cannot survive. That has to be a gut-wrenching decision,” Gronstal said.

  • A Distillation...

    Do I misunderstand?  

    On the one hand, the Iowa Senate votes for a bill that effectively DOES WHAT THE HOUSE WANTS (except that the State Health Facilities Council, which holds veto power over the establishment of ANY facility that allows post-20-week abortions, can be REPLACED by a new governor)…

    …and the house won’t go along, fearing that in years to come their(effective) total ban COULD be overturned by a new governor who appoints different members of the SHF Council.

    As either bill-or an amalgam-will be gladly signed into law by Gov.Brandstad:

    Am I mistaken that the one place left for emergency surgeries such as these would be Iowa City?

    There were six post 20-week abortions here in Iowa in 2009 out of over 5000.

    That’s certainly not an OVERWHELMING NUMBER of horrible, slutty women planning to kill their fetuses…perhaps the 6 women had a real reason for their heartbreaking decision.

    – let me volunteer to drive them.

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