By Sarah Watson
A bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected was headed to the desk of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds early on May 2. If she signs it, the bill will likely head to court, where its fate remains uncertain.
The Senate passed the amended bill in the early hours of the morning on a 29-17 vote, mere hours after the Iowa House debated for nine hours before passing the bill, 51-46.
The bill would require physicians to conduct an ultrasound to detect a heartbeat. If one is found, the physician could not perform an abortion and would have to provide the results and reasoning in writing to the woman seeking an abortion.
A previous version of the bill made exceptions only in the case of a “medical emergency,” which is described as a situation in which the mother’s life is in physical danger. However, amendments passed loosened the bill’s abortion restrictions, allowing the bill to garner extra votes it needed to pass. The House needed a 51-vote majority to pass the bill, which Republicans barely achieved.
The amendments added exceptions in situations of rape or incest if the person reports the case to law enforcement or a health agency within 45 and 140 days respectively. It also adds an exception if the fetus has a “severe fetal abnormality.”
As the bill heads to Reynolds’ desk of, University of Iowa constitutional-law Professor Paul Gowder said the bill will almost certainly not survive a court challenge. However, he said, it would likely be struck down in the lower courts unless there is a change of composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has previously ruled to protect abortion rights in cases such as Roe v. Wade, which first ruled that the women had right to an abortion before “fetal viability” or when a fetus could survive outside the womb, as well as other cases since.
“The reason the U.S. Supreme Court would be unlikely to take it is because it’s an easy case to strike down,” Gowder said. “That is, under previous supreme court precedence, this kind of bill is clearly not constitutional.”
He said the process would start with the filing of a lawsuit at either state or federal court. This would begin the case’s journey through the state or federal system and would end at the Iowa Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court has denied hearing the case of a similar law from North Dakota in recent years. It and other similar “heartbeat” legislation have been found unconstitutional by lower courts.
If upheld, it could cost the UI OB/GYN residency program, university officials have said.
The state Board of Regents, which governs the three Iowa public universities, has opposed the bill, citing the it would lead to the loss of accreditation of the Iowa OB/GYN residency program, which is the only one in the state.
“In order to receive … accreditation, UI’s obstetrics and gynecology program is required to provide family-planning training, including all forms of contraception and training in the provision of abortion, if the student so chooses,” regents’ senior communications director Josh Lehman said in February in a statement on the regents’ position. “If this law were passed, limitations on abortions in Iowa would eliminate the ability to meet training requirements.”
He reaffirmed the regents’ opposition to the bill Wednesday in an email to *The Daily Iowan*.
Republicans, however, are skeptical the bill will lead to the program’s loss of accreditation, citing other ways the program could continue to be accredited, including transporting students to other states for training.
“I believe arguments of the accreditation, while well-intentioned, are specious …” said Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Treynor. “… There is no way for the University of Iowa to lose their [sic] accreditation.”
UI Clinical Professor Marygrace Elson, the director of the UI OB/GYN program, said in an email to the *DI* that the program could continue its accreditation if the bill is upheld, but that would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She said the program expects Reynolds to sign the legislation before going to the courts. Depending on the status of the legislation, a routine visit this summer from the accrediting agency to review the program’s accreditation could result in the program receiving a citation if it cannot offer the appropriate abortion training.
Programs have up to a year to correct deficiencies, which, she said, would involve either sending students to entities outside the state or the UI establishing its own clinic outside state borders.
“We estimate that this could around $800,000 per year, if for example we established a clinic in Illinois, dollars that would otherwise be going to other departmental educational endeavors,” Elson said.
Although a previous version of the bill would have charged doctors who performed an abortion with a low-class felony, there is no language in the bill that penalizes physicians for performing an abortion. However, there is no explicit amendment that protects physicians from criminal liability.
The bill does include language that shields women who seek an abortion from being penalized.