Late on the evening of May 1, Iowa’s GOP-controlled legislature passed an abortion bill that now has the dubious distinction of being the most restrictive — and intentionally unconstitutional — abortion law in America. Gov. Kim Reynolds officially signed the bill into law on Friday.
Immediately after the “100 percent pro-life” Reynolds signed the bill, Planned Parenthood announced it would be suing the state to prevent the law from going into effect.
Dubbed the “heartbeat bill,” the law will prohibit doctors from providing abortion care once a fetal heartbeat is detected. But heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks after gestation (i.e., six weeks after a pregnant person’s last period began). Given that many women don’t learn they are pregnant until after that benchmark, Iowa's law effectively makes abortion illegal while depriving women of their bodily autonomy.
Indeed, women typically don’t find out they are pregnant until they are, on average, five to seven weeks along (for a number of reasons). The science is clear on this issue but I also know it to be true from personal experience. In my early 20s, I didn’t suspect I was pregnant until I was seven weeks along. I then had to make an appointment with my OB-GYN to confirm the pregnancy and get a referral for abortion care. Just that one appointment delayed my abortion by a week, putting me at 8 weeks gestation. By Iowa’s standards, I would have been ruled ineligible and deprived of a chance to choose the best option for my health and the health of my family.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, of the 3,722 abortions performed in the state in 2016, only 347, or 9 percent of them occurred before six weeks of pregnancy. Based on these numbers, the heartbeat bill will potentially force pregnancy upon the vast majority of pregnant women in Iowa who do not want to have a child.
Previous to this bill being signed, Iowa already imposed numerous restrictions on abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortions after 20 weeks gestation are banned in the state unless the woman’s life is endangered, and public funding is available for abortion only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest or fetal anomaly. The governor must approve each Medicaid-funded abortion. Women are also forced to undergo an ultrasound prior to obtaining an abortion, and a pregnant minors’ parent or parents must be notified before the procedure can be performed.
In this context, Iowa’s heartbeat bill isn’t entirely unexpected. But it is unlikely to go into effect in light of judicial precedent. Federal courts have already thwarted similar attempts to ban abortions in Ohio, North Dakota and elsewhere.
So what’s the endgame here? As Robyn Marty has previously noted: “Anti-abortion groups no longer fear that the Supreme Court, given its current and future mix of justices, will uphold Roe if another case makes its way there.” In other words, they’re attempting to use this bill as a test case to get the issue in front of the Supreme Court, where they hope a post-Trump court will gut abortion rights nationwide.
Indeed, state Sen. Rick Bertrand (R-Sioux City) publicly declared as much during the bill’s floor debate: "Today we will begin this journey as Iowa becomes ground zero nationally for the life movement and the starting line back to the Supreme Court. I believe this bill will be the vehicle that will ultimately provide change and provide the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade."
Bertrand’s “opportunity” is a dystopian nightmare for women. Imposing such a punitive law would decimate women’s self-determination by eliminating the ability to plan their families. And make no mistake: low-income and financially overburdened women have been shown to suffer the brunt of other, similar abortion bans (as those with financial resources are better able to travel out of state to seek abortion care).
Despite declaring themselves champions of the unborn, these legislators are defiling the very concept of life — and motherhood. Bringing a child into the world should be done willingly, not as a form of punishment derived from the rigid ideological beliefs of anti-abortion extremists. As a mother, I firmly believe that every child deserves a parent who is willing to bear the lifelong responsibilities of parenting with love and care.
If Iowa’s lawmakers truly want to reduce the number of abortions in their state, they should focus their efforts on increasing access to family planning services and contraception. But they haven’t; in fact, Iowa shuttered one-third of its Planned Parenthood centers in 2017, which was followed by a rise in STDs and quite possibly unintended pregnancies.
The writing is on the wall: Women’s lives and health do not matter to Iowa’s Republican legislature or governor. If we’re not careful, the rest of the country may soon feel draconian ripple effects coming out of the heartland.
Maureen Shaw is a writer, activist and proud mama of two. Her writing has appeared widely online, including in Quartz, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Rewire, ThinkProgress, Romper, Parents and more. She tweets prolifically at @MaureenShaw.