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Six-week abortion ban blocked by Iowa Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3, meaning the governor's attempt to reinstate a stricter ban failed. Abortion remains legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.
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The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday issued a split decision on a proposed six-week abortion ban in the state, allowing the procedures to remain legal until about the 20th week of pregnancy.

The six justices on the state’s high court issued a 3-3 decision, failing to reach a majority regarding whether to overturn a lower court decision that had blocked GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds' effort to reinstate a six-week abortion ban that had been passed in 2018.

The split decision leaves that lower court’s decision in place.

Reproductive rights advocates have said a six-week ban essentially amounts to a total abortion ban, because at the sixth week of pregnancy, most women don't even know they are pregnant.

The ruling could have ramifications in pending decisions in courts in states across the U.S., where six-week bans enacted by conservative state legislatures remain temporarily blocked.

The decision by the Supreme Court in the state holding the first Republican caucuses for the 2024 race will also cement the role the divisive topic plays in presidential politics. GOP candidates already barnstorming the state are certain to be asked frequently for their positions on the ruling, which is likely to emerge as a vehicle to more adequately pin candidates on whether they support a six-week abortion ban.

While the ruling Friday drew upon a certain amount of precedent and legal argument, the decision was more narrowly tailored. It stated that letting the injunction stand was simply a result of the court being deadlocked, not the product of an overt legal opinion to block reinstatement of the ban. The justices did, however, write dozens of pages of “nonprecedential" opinions, or legal opinions that don't break new ground in clearing up existing questions over abortion rights in the state.

"One member of the court is conflicted out from this case, so the court is deadlocked 3–3 and the district court ruling is affirmed by operation of law," the judges wrote, citing precedent that when the state Supreme Court is "equally divided," a "decision of district court is affirmed."

That the court even deadlocked, however, still came as surprise to many reproductive rights advocates.

All seven judges on the bench were appointed by Republican governors, including five who have been appointed by the conservative Reynolds since 2018.

One of the seven judges, Justice Dana Oxley — a Reynolds appointee — recused herself from the case because her former law firm represented an abortion clinic that was a plaintiff in the original case.

Reproductive rights advocates lauded the outcome.

“Today’s order is an enormous win, and it means that Iowans will be able to control their bodies and their futures,” Ruth Richardson, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said in a statement. “Each person deserves control of their body, and Iowans have that right, based on today’s court decision. 

Rita Bettis Austen, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said in a statement. that the district court "rightly rejected the state’s unprecedented legal maneuvers to try to ban abortion in our state.”

“This law was dangerous, cruel, and unconstitutional when the district court blocked it four years ago, and it’s still dangerous, cruel, and unconstitutional today,” Austen said.

Reynolds slammed the ruling and said her administration was “reviewing our options in preparation for continuing the fight.”

“To say that today’s lack of action by the Iowa Supreme Court is a disappointment is an understatement,” she said.

Republican presidential candidates, and groups supporting them, also criticized the ruling and offered support for Reynolds' position.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who's currently running for president, called the decision "a sad reminder of how crucial it is to appoint judges on all of our nation’s courts that will uphold the Right to Life."

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential bid, tweeted support for Reynolds, calling her "a pro-life champion" who they "are proud to stand with."

DeSantis signed into law a six-week abortion ban earlier this year, though it remains temporarily blocked pending a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court on the constitutionality of a 15-week abortion ban DeSantis signed after the state’s 2022 legislative session.

Friday’s ruling in Iowa stemmed from a 2018 law — a so-called “heartbeat bill” — that banned abortions in the state at the sixth week of pregnancy, or when, in some cases, a fetal pulse can first be heard via ultrasound. 

While numerous states have enacted six-week bans in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 2018 Iowa law — passed that year by the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Reynolds — was the most restrictive in the U.S. at the time.

However, an Iowa district court swiftly blocked the law from taking effect, ruling that it violated the state Constitution — specifically its due process and equal protection clauses, the same legal arguments that U.S. Supreme Court justices issued in the landmark 1973 Roe ruling that provided federal abortion protections.

That 2019 district court ruling also cited an Iowa Supreme Court ruling from the year before that struck down a proposed mandatory 72-hour waiting period before receiving abortion care and established that women in Iowa enjoy a “fundamental right” to abortion care.

For four years, Reynolds’ administration did not appeal the ruling. But last year, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a new ruling on the 72-hour waiting period case, declaring that abortion was no longer a fundamental right. 

Following that reversal, Reynolds asked the district court to reinstate the six-week abortion ban. When the district court ruled that it would not do so, Reynolds’ administration appealed, and the case worked its way to the state Supreme Court.