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Heartbeat Law at Iowa Supreme Court: What YOU need to know

Iowa’s Heartbeat Law — the law that protects babies in the womb when a heartbeat is detected — is once again before the Iowa Supreme Court.


The Court scheduled oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of the law on April 11, at 1:30 p.m., in a case called Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds V.


TFL takes an active role


As in years past, TFL attorneys once again took part in preparing an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of prolife Iowa legislators. The brief, which was signed by 45 members of the legislature, cuts to the root issue in this case: It argues that the people’s representatives have the authority to pass laws to protect babies in the womb. You can read the full brief here.


How did we get to PPH v. Reynolds V?


As you can probably guess, the “V” in the Heartbeat case name means “five.” This will be the FIFTH abortion case at the Iowa Supreme Court since Gov. Kim Reynolds took office seven years ago. And it’s the sixth abortion case brought by Planned Parenthood since 2015. You could almost call it an annual tradition.


It has been a long and winding road to this point. 


Abortion was illegal in Iowa from 1858 until Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court 115 years later in 1973. At no point during that time did anyone claim that the Iowa Constitution contained a hidden “abortion right.” In fact, you must fast forward to 2015 in a case called Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Iowa Board of Medicine to find the argument made to the Iowa Supreme Court.


In the 2015 case, pro-abortion Attorney General Tom Miller completely conceded that the Iowa Constitution included abortion rights, just like the Federal Constitution. Because of that concession, the Court simply applied the federal “undue burden” standard that the U.S. Supreme Court was using at the time. But the Iowa Court specifically stated that it “need not decide whether the Iowa Constitution provides such a right.”


In 2018, things got even worse. In PPH v. Reynolds I, a case about the constitutionality of a law requiring a 72-hour abortion waiting period, an activist Iowa Supreme Court found that Iowa’s Constitution contained a “fundamental right” to abortion. The Court didn’t even limit its holding to the early stages of pregnancy. The decision was, at the time, the most extreme pro-abortion ruling ever crafted by an American court.


The original Heartbeat Law was also passed in 2018, but it was never enforced. It was immediately enjoined by a district court and the State didn’t appeal. After the awful fundamental-right-to-abortion decision, an appeal would have been hopeless.


Thankfully, the Court’s membership started to change over the next two years. And Gov. Reynolds’ judicial appointees started to bear fruit.


In a 2021 case, PPH v. Reynolds II, the prolife community received its first ever victory at the Iowa Supreme Court, albeit a small one. The Court upheld a law that excluded abortion providers from receiving state grants to teach sex education. But the 2021 case did not address any limitations on abortion.


The tide really turned in June 2022. In a case about the constitutionality of another abortion waiting period law, PPH v. Reynolds III, the Iowa Supreme Court did something courts are often hesitant to do — it fixed its own horrendous decision from four years prior. A 5-2 majority of the Court rejected the notion that the Iowa Constitution contains a “fundamental right” to abortion.


This was a monumental step in the right direction! But the majority was divided on where to go from there. A plurality of three justices ultimately decided to not decide what standard of review should be applied in future cases. It was left an open question.


A few days after this major victory at the Iowa Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court provided an even bigger one — the overruling of Roe v. Wade.


The great prolife victories of June 2022 paved the way for legal protection of preborn babies in Iowa.


Rather than trying to immediately pass a new law in 2022, Gov. Reynolds elected to pursue enforcement of the Heartbeat Law already in the Iowa Code. The district court refused to remove the injunction that had been placed on the Heartbeat Law in 2018, so Gov. Reynolds asked the Iowa Supreme Court for what’s called a “writ of certiorari.” Essentially, the Governor asked the Supreme Court to step in and fix the district court decision and remove the injunction that prevented the Heartbeat Law from being enforced. But writs of certiorari are discretionary, which means the Court could choose whether it wanted to decide the merits of the case.


The result of this 2023 case, PPH v. Reynolds IV, was highly disappointing. The justices split 3-3.


Three justices wrote that they would grant the writ and treat abortion laws like other health-related laws, that is, allow the people’s elected representatives to legislate as long as there is a “rational basis” for doing so. The other three justices wrote that they would deny the writ for two reasons: They had discretion to do so, and they believe the district court acted within the law when it left the injunction in place.


One justice had recused herself from the case, so there was no seventh vote to break the tie. By rule, a tie preserves the status quo. And the status quo wasn’t good: Babies in the womb would remain unprotected for the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.


After the disappointing result of PPH v. Reynolds IV, Governor Reynolds called a one-day special session of the Legislature in July 2023 to repass the Heartbeat Law. The Legislature did so by an even greater margin than it did the first time. The Senate voted in favor 32-17. The house passed it 56-34. And the Governor signed the bill into law on July 14, 2023.


That brings us to the present case, PPH v. Reynolds V. Before the ink from Gov. Reynolds’ pen had even dried on the new Heartbeat Law, Planned Parenthood had already sued to prevent enforcement of the law. As expected, the Polk County District Court immediately issued a temporary injunction that prevented the state from protecting babies.


After the temporary injunction was granted, the State requested permission for an “interlocutory” appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court (an interlocutory appeal is an appeal on a vital issue in the case before the Court has reached a final decision). Thankfully, the State’s request to review the judicial standard used in abortion cases in the middle of the case was granted. The granting of an interlocutory appeal means the case will be decided at least a year sooner than it otherwise would have.


The table is now set at the Iowa Supreme Court. The parties have filed their briefs, and the case will be submitted on April 11, 2024. The Court will likely issue its decision in June. And with no justice recusals, this time, it won’t end in a tie.


What’s at stake in PPH v. Reynolds V?


The lives of thousands of babies will be impacted by this court decision.


In the short term, this case will decide whether the Polk County District Court was correct to temporarily prevent the State from enforcing the Heartbeat Law. If Gov. Reynolds wins, the Heartbeat Law will be allowed to go into effect and start protecting babies in the womb. If Planned Parenthood wins, the Heartbeat Law will remain enjoined and unenforceable.


In the long term, this case could have much bigger implications. The Iowa Supreme Court could finally set a standard by which Iowa courts should review all future constitutional challenges to abortion laws. The Court could continue to read special “abortion rights” into the Iowa Constitution. Or it could do what the U.S. Supreme Court did in the Dobbs case two years ago and apply the “rational basis test,” just like it does when other health care regulations are at issue.


No matter who wins this appeal, however, the case will eventually be sent back to the District Court for further proceedings, where the constitutional standard set by the Iowa Supreme Court will make all the difference for untold thousands of babies yet to be born.


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