Heartbeat bill advances where personhood failed

The Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill that would ban nearly all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Senate Study Bill 3143 is the most extreme anti-abortion bill to clear an Iowa legislative committee in decades. Any physician terminating a pregnancy in the absence of a “medical emergency”–narrowly defined to include only life-threatening conditions–could be charged with a class D felony. All eight Republicans on the panel voted for the legislation, while all five Democrats opposed it. Committee approval on February 12 keeps the bill alive for at least another month, until the second “funnel” deadline on March 16.

Less than a year ago, Senate Judiciary Chair Brad Zaun was disappointed not to have the votes on his committee to advance a “personhood” bill, which declared that life would be protected from the moment of conception. The same eight Republicans who supported the heartbeat bill this week served on Judiciary during the 2017 session.

Which minds changed is not clear, nor is it apparent whether the bill will gain final approval in either chamber. Not every bill that comes out of committee receives a vote in the full Senate. Republican leaders blocked an effort to force a floor vote on personhood last year.

However, the shift among at least two Republicans on Judiciary suggests that GOP leaders may feel pressure to fire up the social conservative base.


The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1973 that a woman has a right to choose abortion during the first trimester. A fetal heartbeat can be detected well before that window, often by six weeks gestation. That Senate Study Bill 3143 is obviously unconstitutional is a feature, not a bug, to some supporters. They see the legislation as a vehicle for eventually overturning the Roe v Wade decision. Most well-known social conservative groups in Iowa are registered in favor of the bill.

Not every anti-choice advocate sees new litigation of this issue as a blessing. The Iowa Catholic Conference registered as “undecided.” During the February 8 subcommittee hearing on SSB 3143,

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, told lawmakers the church believes life begins at conception but is “neutral” on the bill because it is “likely unconstitutional.”

“We should consider the unintended, long-term consequences that could result from our court finding a robust right to an abortion in our state Constitution, which could result in the elimination of some of the limitations we already have in Iowa,” he said.

Although the Iowa Supreme Court has never ruled on whether our state constitution protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, the unanimous 2015 ruling to strike down a state ban on telemedicine abortion suggests that the Catholic Conference’s concerns are well-placed.

Zaun’s new bill has roused broader opposition than last year’s personhood legislation. Groups that consistently support reproductive rights, such as Iowa affiliates of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, registered against the personhood bill, which talked about protecting all life from the moment of conception without making physicians criminally liable.

Because the heartbeat bill would impose criminal penalties on doctors, several groups representing physicians are lobbying against it: Iowa Medical Society, The Iowa Clinic, Iowa Independent Physician Group, and the COPIC corporation, which provides medical liability insurance.

After initially registering as “undecided,” the Iowa Board of Regents now opposes the heartbeat bill. A letter from the state chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists probably tipped the scales. You can read that letter in full at the end of this post. Key points:

ACOG defines abortion as “standard of care” for women found to have a medical or other reason for termination of pregnancy. When physicians are unable to make decisions based on evidence-based medicine, they are vulnerable to civil litigation from patients; and under this bill, performing an abortion after six weeks would also make a physician liable to criminal prosecution. This places physicians in an impossible position between the law and providing evidence-based, individualized, and medically necessary care to their patients. […]

We are also deeply concerned that SSB 3143 would have a devastating impact on our women’s health workforce in Iowa. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) requires that Ob-Gyn residency programs provide training or access to training in the provisions of abortions as part of a planned curriculum. Were SSB 3143 to become law, the University of Iowa would fall short of meeting ACGME standards. In other words, the University of Iowa could lose accreditation for its residency program in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the only OBG residency training program in the state.

Currently, approximately a third of our University of Iowa OBG residency graduates remain in Iowa to practice. Iowa already ranks next to last in the nation for OBG physicians per capita with two-thirds of Iowa’s counties not having an OBG physician. Losing our OBG residency would deal a devastating blow to women’s health care in our state. Further, currently practicing ob-gyns would have little incentive to move to–or stay in–a state with mandates running so fundamentally contrary to scientific and medical facts.


The Republican Party of Iowa has officially stood for a “Life Begins at Conception Bill without exceptions” for many years. Our state’s last pro-choice GOP legislator retired in 2008. Nevertheless, top Republican lawmakers have rarely acted on their purported beliefs about abortion.

Since Republicans regained control of the Iowa House in 2010, nothing nearly as restrictive as SSB 3143 has advanced from a committee in the lower chamber. Year after year, most anti-abortion bills died in the funnel, including various versions of “personhood.” Most House GOP caucus members didn’t co-sponsor the broad anti-choice bills. Attempts by rebels to bring personhood to the House floor failed.

During the 2017 legislative session, Republicans enacted a near-total ban on abortion after 20 weeks gestation. As that proposal moved through the Iowa House, Republicans added a 72-hour waiting period for abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but efforts to add “heartbeat” language were dropped before the Human Resources Committee approved the bill. Senior leaders declined to co-sponsor the personhood bill in either chamber. The House version never even got a subcommittee hearing.

As mentioned above, Zaun could not get the Senate personhood bill through his Judiciary Committee last year. He and three fellow Republicans (Amy Sinclair, Jason Schultz, and Jeff Edler) supported the bill, but the other four GOP members of the panel (Dan Dawson, Julian Garrett, Tom Shipley, and Charles Schneider) were not co-sponsors. Yet all of them voted this week to advance an anti-abortion bill that is arguably more far-reaching.

Since Zaun used his power as chair to introduce the new bill as a proposal of the Judiciary Committee, there is no list of co-sponsors to compare to last year’s personhood supporters in the upper chamber (20 Republicans and independent Senator David Johnson).

Governor Kim Reynolds has said little this year about abortion other than one line in her Condition of the State address: “And we will never stop working to protect the unborn.” Last month, staff did not respond to inquiries about what further steps the governor had in mind or whether she favors personhood legislation. To my knowledge, she has not clarified whether she would sign a heartbeat bill, risking an exodus of doctors from the state and the loss of the University of Iowa’s OB/GYN residency program.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix and House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer have never prioritized abortion restrictions, and this year looked unlikely to become an exception. Now I wonder whether leaders have come to see this unconstitutional bill as the fastest ticket to motivating “elated” social conservatives to GOTV for Republicans before November. Strong candidate recruitment, Iowa caucus attendance, and special election turnout point to highly energized Democratic voters.

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