Six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy is the point at which doctors typically can detect the flicker of a fetal heartbeat on an ultrasound. It’s also the point after which Iowa lawmakers now intend to outlaw abortions.
The Iowa Legislature approved what would be the nation’s strictest abortion law in an early-morning vote on Wednesday. The move intended to pose an aggressive challenge to Roe v. Wade and reignite conservative energy before the midterm elections in November.
Other states, including North Dakota and Arkansas, have passed similarly prohibitive measures restricting abortion and have seen them swiftly voided by the courts as unconstitutional. Supreme Court decisions have given women a right to abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy, and some states have enacted bans of abortions after 20 weeks. Both proponents and critics of the Iowa bill said they are girding for another legal battle.
But the Republicans pressing the Iowa legislation are making a decisive turn away from the smaller, more incremental measures of the past that have, in their view, merely chipped away at abortion rights. They have a new, longer-term goal in their sights: reaching a Supreme Court that could shift in composition with a Republican president in the White House, potentially giving the anti-abortion movement a court more sympathetic to its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade than the current court is.
“We at the state legislatures, especially Republican-controlled legislatures, have a responsibility to kind of reload,” said State Senator Rick Bertrand, a Republican from Sioux City. “We need to create vehicles that will allow the Supreme Court possibly to reach back and take this case, and to take up an anti-abortion case.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a Republican, has not yet said whether she would sign the bill, though she reiterated through a spokeswoman that she is “100 percent pro-life and will never stop fighting for the unborn.”
A decision from the governor on whether to sign the bill is expected within days.
The legislation does not specify a point in a woman’s pregnancy when abortion is no longer allowed, but would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected. Experts say such detection is possible at around six weeks of pregnancy.
If the bill becomes law, it could sharply curtail the number of abortions in Iowa, a state of 3.1 million people. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, of 3,722 abortions performed in the state in 2016, 347 of them occurred before six weeks of pregnancy, the time when many women are newly learning that they are pregnant.
The Iowa bill, which includes exemptions for victims of rape and incest, quickly drew the condemnation of national abortion rights groups.
Erin Davison-Rippey, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said that most abortions in Iowa would be illegal under the measure.
“This bill is dangerous, it is unconstitutional and it is just unconscionable,” said Ms. Davison-Rippey, who called on Ms. Reynolds to veto the bill. Planned Parenthood closed four of its 12 Iowa clinics after lawmakers cut funds to the organization last year.
Jennifer Price, co-director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, which provides abortions in Iowa City, said women often take time to meet with counselors and family members before deciding whether to obtain an abortion. A six-week cutoff, she said, would force an immediate decision.
The bill, she said, “just doesn’t provide the time or space” for those deliberations.
State Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat, called the bill an attack on women’s rights and said she believed that Republicans, who control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, might have acted in part for political reasons, as they work to maintain power in November’s elections.
But abortion opponents cheered the decision, and called on other state legislatures to follow suit. Some dismissed suggestions that the move was a legal maneuver or a political strategy.
“This legislation affirms the scientific fact that human life begins at conception,” the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based in Mississippi, said in a statement. “Those of us who are against abortion have no hidden agenda. Our goal is plain and simple — to once and for all end the horrible practice of abortion and to create a society that values life from conception to natural death.”
Jake Chapman, a state senator in Iowa who supported the measure, said he hoped his fellow Republicans in other states would consider similar measures.
“States need to start pushing back and saying, ‘These are decisions that we ought to be able to make,’ ” Mr. Chapman said. “I think the fight for life is a fight worth fighting at every step of the way.”
Other states have tried, and failed, to bring a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade by passing their own laws restricting abortion.
In 2013, North Dakota enacted a law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, but the law was struck down in the courts, and the Supreme Court declined to take up the case. In March, legislators in Ohio introduced a bill that would ban all abortions, with no exceptions.
Earlier this year, Mississippi passed a law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormality but not for cases of rape or incest. The Iowa bill also includes exceptions for medical emergencies, medically necessary abortions and instances when the fetus has an abnormality that is “incompatible with life.”
In its current composition, the Supreme Court is not seen as likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. In 2016, the Court, in a 5-to-3 decision, struck down parts of a Texas law that could have sharply scaled back the number of abortion clinics in the state.
That law required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and clinics, a restriction that the court ruled would place an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voted with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer for the majority. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas dissented.
The legislative action in Iowa came after some conservatives in the State Senate threatened to hold up budget legislation until the House passed the abortion bill. The vote broke down largely along party lines; only six House Republicans voted against the bill.
Democrats have been shut out of power in Des Moines since the 2016 election, and have seen the state lurch to the right on issues such as gun rights and voter identification. But the Democrats see opportunities for gains in November, hoping to defeat Ms. Reynolds, gain ground in the Legislature and perhaps flip some of the state’s congressional districts.
With the legislative session drawing to a close, a vote on new restrictions for abortion was seen as a move that could help mobilize Republican voters ahead of the election and give state lawmakers seeking re-election an added talking point.
”Any time you vote on big-plank Republican issues, it motivates Republicans,” said Mr. Bertrand, the Republican from Sioux City.
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