Iowans strongly oppose constitutional amendment on abortion

Several initiatives Republican legislators have promoted this year lack popular support, according to the latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. One of the most unpopular proposals tested was a state constitutional amendment that would clear a path for future abortion bans.

What the amendment would do

Republicans have claimed they are trying to make the Iowa Constitution “neutral” on the subject of abortion. But only anti-abortion organizations are lobbying for the effort to add the following language to the state’s founding document:

To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.

The amendment would overturn a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, which held that women have a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution’s equal protection and due process guarantees. That decision did not address public funding for abortion, which has long been prohibited in Iowa. But dissenting conservative justices warned that the majority may have produced “a stepping stone toward a ruling that Iowa’s Medicaid program must fund abortions.”

If the amendment were adopted, the Iowa Supreme Court would not be able to cite the state constitution to strike down any abortion restrictions, no matter how extreme. We don’t have to guess how Republicans would use that power. In 2018, the GOP-controlled legislature approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that would have prohibited almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat could be detected, which can happen as early as 6 weeks. (A Polk County District Court found that law unconstitutional, and Reynolds opted not to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v Wade before long, Iowa abortion bans would also be safe from judicial review under the federal Constitution.

Where the amendment sits in the legislative process

Iowa House Republicans didn’t have the votes last year to pass the anti-abortion constitutional amendment last year. After enlarging their majority to 59-41 in the 2020 elections, the lower chamber quickly moved on the proposal this year, approving it mostly along party lines in January.

The Iowa Senate passed the constitutional amendment in early 2020, when Republicans had the same 32-18 majority they now enjoy. I expected rapid approval for the amendment again this year. But although the proposal advanced from committee in early February, Senate GOP leaders haven’t brought the measure up for a floor vote, for reasons that remain unclear.

Concept has little public support

The Des Moines Register published links to all results from Selzer’s telephone survey of 775 Iowa adults, which was in the field between March 7 and March 10. Ian Richardson covered the findings on the abortion amendment on March 26.

Asked whether they favor an initiative to “Amend the Iowa Constitution to say it does not recognize a right to abortion or require public funding of abortion,” just 31 percent of respondents said yes.

Among those polled, more than half of Iowa Republicans, 55%, say they support the proposed amendment, while 36% oppose it. But only 9% of Democrats support the amendment, with 82% opposed. Among political independents, 30% favor the amendment, and 57% are opposed. […]

A majority of both Protestants, 51%, and Catholics, 52%, say they oppose the amendment, as well as 81% of those not identifying with a religion. 

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, Selzer’s random sample of Iowa adults may not reflect the views of registered voters or those who participate in elections. Furthermore, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, and a larger margin of error for subsamples. So one can’t assume these poll numbers match the views of Iowans who will cast ballots in the 2024 general election, when this proposal might appear on a statewide ballot. (In Iowa, constitutional amendments must be passed by two separately elected legislatures before they go to Iowa voters for final approval.)

But even the GOP’s structural turnout advantage can’t change the fact that most Iowans don’t want our constitution to preclude any protection for abortion rights. If Selzer’s findings are anywhere in the ballpark, Iowa voters would reject this idea handily.

Perhaps this poll will not deter legislative leaders from proceeding with the amendment. A large part of the GOP base expects action on this front. In addition, an expensive campaign over an anti-abortion project would produce higher turnout among Republican-leaning groups like evangelical Christians.

On the other hand, making the abortion issue more salient during the 2024 general election campaign could hurt GOP candidates among swing groups. For instance, no-party voters are far more likely to participate in presidential elections than in midterms, and most of them aren’t on board with amending the constitution for this purpose.

Final note: only one legislative proposal tested in the latest Selzer poll had less support than the anti-abortion amendment. Tyler Jett reported for the Register that just 17 percent of respondents favored cutting “unemployment benefits to laid-off Iowa workers,” while 75 percent were against that idea, and 8 percent were not sure. Even among Republican respondents, 66 percent opposed cutting jobless benefits.

Charlie Wishman explained here how companion bills backed by business lobby groups would affect unemployed Iowans. At this writing, the legislation has cleared committees in both the Iowa House and Senate but has not been brought up for a floor vote in either chamber.

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