Obtaining an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before most know they are pregnant, was a crime in Iowa – for a weekend.
On Friday afternoon, Kim Reynolds, the Iowa governor, a Republican, signed a law banning the procedure after six weeks, at which point doctors begin detecting cardiac activity in an embryo, with narrow exceptions at an evangelical conference. Abortion providers immediately filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary injunction and an Iowa judge approved it on Monday.
Reproductive rights groups and their legal teams welcomed the temporary block – but with caution, as state lawmakers could challenge the ruling in court.
“We are deeply relieved that the court granted this relief so essential healthcare in Iowa can continue,” said Abbey Hardy-Fairbanks, the medical director at the Emma Goldman Clinic, in a joint statement with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood after the ruling Monday. “We are also acutely aware that the relief is only pending further litigation and the future of abortion in Iowa remains tenuous and threatened.”
Reynolds, who called a rare special legislative session to pass the six-week ban, signaled her crusade in a brief statement released shortly after the Monday ruling: “The abortion industry’s attempt to thwart the will of Iowans and the voices of their elected representatives continues today, but I will fight this all the way to the Iowa supreme court,” she said.
The legal back and forth over abortion in Iowa has mirrored court battles in other states, where reproductive rights groups and their lawyers have taken a number of approaches to challenge abortion bans under state law. Since the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, 25 states have tried to implement either a complete or “pre-viability” ban, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) tracker. The bans are currently blocked by courts in seven states.
In Nebraska abortion providers and the ACLU are challenging the state’s 12-week ban, which Jim Pillen, the governor, signed into law in May. Plaintiffs Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Sarah Traxler, an OB-GYN, are seeking a temporary injunction on the law, which also bans gender-affirming surgery for people under 19, saying it violated the state constitution by lumping together two unrelated bills.
And in Wisconsin, where clinics are no longer performing abortions after an 1849 law making abortion a felony in nearly all cases took effect last May, the attorney general, Josh Kaul, a Democrat, is suing to repeal the ban. A judge ruled in July that the lawsuit could continue after a defendant, a conservative Wisconsin attorney, moved to dismiss the case.
But legal battles have led to uncertainty for abortion providers and those seeking abortion care.
Over the last year, 20% of OB-GYNs have felt constraints on their ability to provide care for miscarriages and other pregnancy-related medical emergencies, according to a KFF survey conducted in May. That figure doubled in states where abortion is banned.
“Providers have stopped providing things preemptively because they’re afraid about their criminal liability or they’ve actually moved out of the state,” said Laurie Sobel, an associate director for women’s health policy at KFF. “There’s a lot in the middle that poses burdens and challenges to people seeking abortion care.”
Varied restrictions over contraceptives and abortion methods across states have further complicated access to care since the Dobbs ruling, Sobel said.
More than two-thirds of OB-GYNs nationwide said they understand the circumstances under which abortion is legal in the state they practice very well while just 45% of OBGYNs in states where abortion is restricted by gestational limits said so, according to the survey by KFF.
In Iowa, the last ruling that set a clear standard for how to review abortion cases was in 2015, according to Sally Frank, a professor at Drake University Law School and an expert on Iowa’s abortion law. In that case, the Iowa supreme court used the standard of “undue burden” to rule that a ban on televisits to obtain abortion pills violated the state constitution.
If the state appeals the judge’s ruling and the lawsuit goes up to the Iowa supreme court, justices will need to decide whether to use the 2015 undue burden test, which favors reproductive rights groups, or set a new standard, said Frank.
“The thing about abortion is you can ban it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop,” said Frank.