Why Iowans can't force a statewide vote on abortion rights

Ohio residents voted to add reproductive rights protections to the state constitution on November 7, passing the measure known as Issue 1 by 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent. When that language goes into effect, it will prevent enforcement of a law Ohio’s Republican trifecta enacted in 2019, which would prohibit almost all abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected.

Iowa Republican lawmakers approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a similar near-total abortion ban in July. A Polk County District Court blocked enforcement of that law, and the state has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to dissolve that injunction and uphold the law as constitutional.

Voters in Michigan, California, and Vermont approved reproductive rights constitutional amendments in 2022, and activists hope to place similar measures on the November 2024 ballot in other states, such as Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, and Missouri.

Some Bleeding Heartland readers have asked why Democrats aren’t trying to do the same in Iowa, where polls indicate a strong majority of adults believe abortion should be mostly or always legal, and the state’s partisan lean is roughly the same as Ohio’s.

The answer is simple: there is no mechanism for Iowa voters to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.


The framers of Iowa’s constitution established a relatively difficult and lengthy amendment process, compared to what is available in many other states. Under Article X, proposed constitutional amendments must pass through two separately elected Iowa legislatures before going on a statewide ballot. That is, the Iowa House and Senate must approve the language, and following the next general election, the House and Senate must approve identical language again.

Once that happens, the legislature schedules a statewide vote on the proposal. The amendment is added to the constitution only if a majority of voters approve.

Usually, constitutional amendments appear on a general election ballot, as with the 2022 vote on a state right to bear arms. But the legislature can choose another date. Some votes on constitutional amendments have coincided with a primary election, such as the 1962 changes to judicial selection. The Republican-controlled legislature scheduled a statewide election in June 1999 to consider two amendments concerning tax increases and government spending. (Iowans rejected both proposals by narrow margins.)

Iowa’s constitution does give voters one path to initiate changes to the founding document. Every ten years, the following question appears on a general election ballot: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?”

The constitutional convention option won’t be available to Iowans again until 2030. And even if it could happen sooner, no political party or influential advocacy group would push for a state convention in order to secure a specific change, like new language on abortion. There are too many unknowns about the process. The delegates wouldn’t be limited to debating one issue; they could consider many kinds of amendments. Iowans rejected the constitutional convention by two-to-one margins in 2010 and 2020.

The upshot is that citizens have no way to force a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment of their choice. The ball is in the legislature’s court.


Obviously, the GOP-controlled Iowa House and Senate would never advance an amendment protecting reproductive rights, like Michigan’s Proposal 3 from last year, Issue 1 in Ohio, or the legislation Iowa House Democrats introduced earlier this year. But what about the amendment Republican lawmakers approved in 2021?

Before Iowans could vote on that proposal, state lawmakers would need to pass the following language again next year.

Sec. 26. Life. To defend the dignity of all human life and protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth, 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.

Polling data from the social conservative group The FAMiLY Leader influenced the wording. The idea was that instead of asking Iowans to approve an unpopular abortion ban, the proposal implied the amendment would “protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth.”

A similar measure was on the ballot in Kentucky in November 2022, and voters rejected it by 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent. Last week, Kentucky residents re-elected Democratic Governor Andy Beshear by about the same margin. His campaign had highlighted his support for abortion rights and attacked the Republican nominee for supporting a ban with no exceptions for rape or incest.

It’s worth noting that Kentucky’s Cook Partisan Voting Index is R+16, meaning the state voted about 16 points more Republican than the country as a whole in the last two presidential elections. Iowa and Ohio are much less GOP-leaning, with PVIs of R+6.

My sources with knowledge of legislative affairs are confident Republican leaders will not risk letting Iowans vote on an abortion amendment. In 2021, an Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found only 31 percent of adults supported the GOP’s proposed constitutional amendment on abortion. A statewide vote against the idea that “this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion” could affect how the Iowa Supreme Court determines the legal framework for reviewing abortion restrictions.

The irony is, Republicans wanted to pass their abortion-related constitutional amendment during the 2020 legislative session. They lacked the votes to get the measure through the Iowa House, so settled for a 24-hour abortion waiting period instead.

If the legislature had approved the amendment in 2020 and again in 2021, Iowans could have voted on it in the post-Dobbs environment of 2022. Reproductive rights advocates might have succeeded here as they did in Kansas and Kentucky last year. We’ll never know.

Appendix: Full text of Issue 1, the state constitutional amendment Ohio voters approved on November 7

Article I, Section 22. The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety 

A. Every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on: contraception; fertility treatment; continuing one’s own pregnancy; miscarriage care; and abortion. 

B. The State shall not, directly or indirectly, burden, penalize, prohibit, interfere with, or discriminate against either: An individual’s voluntary exercise of this right or; A person or entity that assists an individual exercising this right, unless the State demonstrates that it is using the least restrictive means to advance the individual’s health in accordance with widely accepted and evidence-based standards of care. 

However, abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability. But in no case may such an abortion be prohibited if in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health. 

C. As used in this Section: “Fetal viability” means “the point in a pregnancy when, in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician, the fetus has a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus with reasonable measures. This is determined on a case-by-case basis.” 

“State” includes any governmental entity and any political subdivision. 

D. This Section is self-executing. 

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  • thanks for spelling this out Laura

    we desperately need more of this kind of civics education and the end of teaching myths/propaganda like “Checks & Balances” or the “The Rule of Law” or that we have governments that represent the People when minority rule has always been institutionalized in so many ways.

  • I spent the first part of my life in states that allow voter initiatives and referendums...

    …so moving to Iowa a few decades ago and finding out that option doesn’t exist here was a small political culture shock. But during the years when Iowa was purple, I didn’t really feel deprived. I do now.