Iowa Supreme Court upholds state’s ‘heartbeat’ abortion law

A group from St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City participated in the Iowa March for Life earlier this month. Pictured are, from left, Samantha Gumpper, Vanessa Milliman, Maria Brown, Drew Brown and Maylee Brown. Iowa’s Catholic leaders praised the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision June 28 upholding the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Iowa Supreme Court upholds state’s ‘heartbeat’ abortion law


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DES MOINES – Iowa’s Catholic leaders praised the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision June 28 upholding the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. In a 4-3 vote, the Supreme Court reversed a Polk County District Court judge’s decision that blocked enforcement of the statute and sent the case back to the district court to dissolve the temporary injunction against it.


“When that happens in the near future, the law will go into effect,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of Iowa’s bishops. Abortion has been legal in Iowa up to the 20th week of pregnancy.

The state’s bishops and diocesan administrator for the Davenport Diocese expressed their appreciation in a statement issued June 28 through the ICC:

“We celebrate that the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized there is no right to an abortion to be found in the Iowa Constitution and, in so doing, has lifted an injunction against the law that would prohibit abortions after a heartbeat can be detected. As Pope Francis has said, ‘Let us respect and love human life, especially vulnerable life in a mother’s womb.’ For us, this is a question of the common good and human dignity.

“Human life is precious and should be protected in our laws to the greatest extent possible. As a state and as a society, we should commit ourselves to working for the protection of all vulnerable populations from violence – wherever individuals and groups are at risk. We urge people of good will in Iowa both to work for an end to the practice of abortion and to join us in tireless, unremitting and compassionate solidarity with pregnant women in distress, with the men who fathered these children, and with families in need.”

The statement’s signers are Archbishop Thomas Zinkula of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Bishop William Joensen of the Des Moines Diocese, Bishop Walker Nickless of the Sioux City Diocese, and Diocesan Administrator Father Ken Kuntz of the Diocese of Davenport.

In its ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court said, “We have previously held that abortion is not a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution. … Applying our established tiers of scrutiny, we hold that abortion restrictions alleged to violate the due process clause are subject to the rational basis test. Employing that test here, we conclude that the fetal heartbeat statute is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in protecting unborn life.”

Signed into law in 2023, the statue prohibits physicians, with certain exceptions, from performing an abortion after detecting a fetal heartbeat. The statute includes exceptions that allow an abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat if a medical emergency exists or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The medical emergency exception allows an abortion to “preserve the life of the pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy,” the Iowa Supreme Court said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds applauded the ruling in a statement June 28. “There is no right more sacred than life, and nothing more worthy of our strongest defense than the innocent unborn,” she said. “Iowa voters have spoken clearly through their elected representatives, both in 2018 when the original heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, and again in 2023 when it passed by an even larger margin. I’m glad that the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld the will of the people of Iowa.

“As the heartbeat bill finally becomes law, we are deeply committed to supporting women in planning for motherhood, and promoting fatherhood and its importance in parenting. We will continue to develop policies that encourage strong families, which includes promoting adoption and protecting in vitro fertilization (IVF). Families are the cornerstone of society, and it’s what will keep the foundation of our state and country strong for generations to come,” Gov. Reynolds said.

“Thanks be to God for the clarity of the court in honoring the will of Iowans to protect the most vulnerable among us,” Johnson County Right to Life Executive Director Sheryl Schwager said in a statement. The heartbeat law “brings us closer to a culture that makes abortion illegal in law and unthinkable in hearts. Thank you for your continued prayers and support as we educate our community about the inhumanity of abortion and the many resources available to help women, their families and future Iowans thrive.”

In a dissenting opinion, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen wrote, “Today, our court’s majority strips Iowa women of their bodily autonomy by holding that there is no fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy under our state constitution. I cannot stand by this decision. The majority’s rigid approach relies heavily on the male-dominated history and traditions of the 1800s, all the while ignoring how far women’s rights have come since the Civil War era. It is a bold assumption to think that the drafters of our state constitution intended for their interpretation to stand still while we move forward as a society. Instead, we should interpret our constitution through a modern lens that recognizes how our lives have changed with the passage of time.” She said the ruling “casts a doubt on the stability of rights like contraception, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage should constitutional challenges to these rights come before us.”

Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, said in a statement, “… We know most Iowans want to protect abortion rights and keep politicians out of their private medical decisions. We are committed to continuing the work with all Iowans to secure abortion rights in our state again.”

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