What to expect from the Iowa Legislature’s abortion-focused special session

Iowa State Capitol
Posted at 5:11 PM, Jul 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-10 18:12:31-04

Lawmakers will convene at the Capitol on Tuesday in a rare special session. On the agenda is a bill to restrict abortion, one nearly identical to the so-called “fetal heartbeat bill” from 2018. 

The bill would ban abortion once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks after conception, with some exceptions. 


Per Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation, the special session will begin Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. 

The Iowa House Health and Human Services Committee will meet at 9:15 a.m. and host a public hearing on House Study Bill 255 at 9:30 a.m. in room 103 at the Capitol. Attendees can sign up to participate in person. 

Each speaker will have two minutes and speaking privileges will alternate between pro and con until 11 a.m.

The committee will meet as a subcommittee of the whole following the hearing. That means the entire committee will participate, instead of just three members. After the subcommittee, the full committee will meet. The meeting will be livestreamed.

The Senate will hear its version of the bill, Senate Study Bill 1223, in the State Government subcommittee at 11 a.m. Tuesday in room 116 of the Capitol. The panel will meet as a subcommittee as a whole, followed by the full committee meeting. The meeting will be streamed and participants may participate in person or online.

Floor debate

Debate on the House and Senate floor may begin any time after the bill emerges from that chamber’s committee, assuming lawmakers suspend usual rules of order. Each party typically gathers in close-door caucus meetings before debate begins. Caucuses may last hours.

Iowans can watch live floor debate or stream audio from the Legislature’s website.

It takes 51 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate to pass a bill.

The lead-up

Reynolds ordered a special session Wednesday specifically to address abortion laws in Iowa. On Friday, the text of a proposed House bill was released. 

The bill proposed for Tuesday is nearly identical to the 2018 anti-abortion measure passed by the Legislature, and blocked by courts in 2019. 

The bill includes exceptions for rape, incest and when a mother’s life in in danger. 

Amendments to the bill during Tuesday’s special session are possible, but as it stands, abortion after six weeks would be illegal as soon as Reynolds inks her name on the document.

A Iowa Supreme Court ruling in June was split 3-3 on blocking the enforcement of the 2018 bill, which allowed a lower court’s verdict to stand, keeping the ban on the law in place.

Reynolds had petitioned the court to reconsider its 2019 decision to block the law after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the Iowa Supreme Court reversed its previous decision that the state constitution contained a right to abortion.

After the announcement last month of the court’s split decision, Reynolds announced a special session to take up a nearly identical version of the bill that was blocked. 

The Republican majority did not take action on abortion during the 2023 regular session as they waited for a decision from the court. 

Twenty members of the House did propose legislation to ban all abortions in Iowa earlier this year, but the law made it no further than an introduction. 

The Legislature has experienced some turnover in lawmakers since 2018, but Republicans still hold the majority, with Senate Republicans now holding a supermajority. 

What’s in the bill

The 2018 bill made most abortions after six weeks illegal. Under current law, abortions up to 20 weeks are legal in Iowa. 

Medical professionals would be mandated to check for a “detectable fetal heartbeat” under the proposed bill, and then must inform the pregnant woman that an abortion is prohibited if embryonic cardiac activity is detected. The woman then must sign the document confirming her ineligibility for an abortion.

The bill allows exceptions for abortions after detected embryonic cardiac activity in a case of rape if the case was reported to law enforcement or a health agency within 45 days and within 140 days for cases of incest.

The only way to receive an abortion after the 20-week mark is if a physician determines there is a medical emergency.

The bill defines a medical emergency as “a situation in which an abortion is performed to preserve the life of the pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness or physical injury including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy, but not including psychological conditions, emotional conditions, familial conditions or the woman’s age; or when continuation of the pregnancy will create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairments of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”

Liability for an abortion does not fall on the mother, according to the proposed bill.

“The bill is not to be construed to impose civil or criminal liability on a woman upon whom an abortion is performed in violation of the division. The board of medicine is directed to adopt administrative rules to administer the bill.”

The legislation takes effect immediately upon enactment by the governor’s signature, which means rules to administer the bill would not yet be established.

Back to court?

If the bill is enacted, advocates for abortion rights are expected to again seek court review of the law, but it is unknown how soon that may happen or whether a judge will put a hold on the law while litigation is pending.

A key issue is whether the Iowa Supreme Court might change the standard of review for the law. In its recent order, Justice Thomas Waterman, writing for the justices on the prevailing side, found that the “undue burden standard” remains in effect, but noted the court could change the standard.

The “undue burden” standard means abortion laws cannot create excessive hurdles in procuring access to abortion without serving a legitimate public interest. The court previously found that the 2018 law did not meet the standard, because it would outlaw most abortions before most women would discover they are pregnant.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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