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Fate of Iowa abortion ban still unclear

The future of a proposed ban on late-term abortions in Iowa remains unclear as the plan heads for debate this week in the Legislature.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The future of a proposed ban on late-term abortions in Iowa remains unclear as the plan heads for debate this week in the Legislature.

The Republican-controlled House is expected to approve the ban, but support in the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, is uncertain. Questions also remain about whether the measure is subject to an April 1 legislative deadline.

The bill would ban abortions in Iowa after the 20th week of pregnancy unless a doctor determined a medical emergency made the procedure necessary. It's based on the disputed notion that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks.

Abortion opponents in Iowa said there's a sense of urgency to pass abortion restrictions, in part because the state now has a Republican governor who is likely to sign them. And after lawmakers in Nebraska enacted similar restrictions, a doctor in the Omaha area announced plans to offer late-term abortions at a clinic just across the Iowa border in Council Bluffs.

The bill is expected to come out of the House Government Oversight Committee this week, and then be debated by the full House the following week.

There is some disagreement about whether it would be subject to the April 1 deadline, when rules dictate House bills must be approved by a Senate committee to be considered during the rest of the session.

Bills from the oversight committee are typically not subject to the deadline, but the abortion measure is likely to be considered by the Senate Human Resources Committee when it reaches the Senate. Bills in that committee are subject to the deadline.

The GOP holds a 60-40 margin in the House, and some Republicans back banning later-term abortions while more conservative members favor outlawing them completely. Some Democrats fear that Republicans may amend the bill to outlaw abortions, but the legislation, as it stands, would only ban late-term abortions.

Rep. Chris Hagenow, a Windsor Heights Republican who's managing the bill in the House, said the measure will not be greatly changed.

But Rep. Janet Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, has concerns. She said the bill tries to solve a problem that's not there, noting just a handful of abortions are performed each year after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Hagenow said the bill is not about past abortions, but about potential future ones.

"And there are some very present and real future cases in the state which I think are very appropriate for us as a state to try to avoid," Hagenow said.

Kyle Carlson, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said he thinks the Senate has some interest in preventing Dr. LeRoy Carhart from opening a practice in Iowa. But Carlson doesn't believe the bill would stop the Nebraska doctor from moving across the border, and said the state may be in for a legal challenge if the bill becomes law.

"I think the bill has ulterior motives," Carlson said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he would allow the issue to work its way through committees in the Senate — if the restrictions get House approval. As majority leader, he controls what bills come up for debate.

"I think an awful lot of people in Council Bluffs think it would be a mistake to open a new clinic in Council Bluffs," Gronstal said. "I think they're asking for anything that can help stop that."

Gronstal said he would wait and see what happens in the House before deciding how he will vote.

The chairwoman of the Senate Human Resources Committee, the likely destination of any abortion-related measure approved by the House, also said she's willing to consider the bill. But she doubts her caucus would support major changes to current abortion laws.

"I think that some of these bills seem pretty extreme," said Sen. Amanda Ragan, a Mason City Democrat. "I would say that more moderate legislation is always easier to pass."