Iowa lawmakers aren’t mincing words about their motives in the battle to save babies.
In the wee hours of May 2, after nine hours of deliberations in the state House of Representatives and three more in the Iowa Senate, they passed the strictest pro-life legislation in the nation, banning most abortions at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat. Two days later, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed it into law. All of them knew its constitutionality would be challenged in court—which is exactly what they wanted because their desired end-game is an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court and a challenge to the infamous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“It is time for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of life,” the bill’s floor manager in the House, Rep. Shannon Lundgren (R-Dubuque), said during the debate. “It has taken decades for science to catch up to what many have believed all along: that she’s a baby.”
With Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union promising a lawsuit, Reynolds signed the bill, surrounded by cheering, applauding supporters that included youth from a local Christian school and mothers holding their babies.
“This is bigger than just a law. This is about life,” Reynolds said in a statement.
“For me, it is immoral to stop an innocent beating heart. … For me, my faith leads me to protect every Iowan, no matter how small.”
A fetal heartbeat usually can be detected six weeks after conception and is the earliest point a woman can know for certain that she’s pregnant. Thus, the bill would essentially render abortion illegal except in special cases such as medical emergency or pregnancy as the result of rape or incest.
The stakes could hardly be higher, according to Iowa Rep. Joel Fry (R-Osceola), who chairs the Human Resources Committee, which brought forth the bill in the House.
“I believe from the standpoint of a Biblical conversation, there are few things—maybe nothing—that breaks God’s heart more than to see an unborn child disposed of and held in such loose regard,” Fry, a Christian counselor and church elder, told Decision.
An estimated 60 million babies have been aborted in the 45 years since the Roe v. Wade decision—nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population (326 million).
The ruling and a subsequent 1992 case gave women the right to an abortion up until a baby is viable to survive outside the mother’s womb, which the court held was around 24 weeks into the pregnancy and sometimes earlier.
Optimism for a potential Roe v. Wade defeat is rooted in the expectation that President Donald Trump would appoint a conservative constitutionalist to the Supreme Court if a vacancy arose, as he did last year by replacing the deceased Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch. There has been speculation that Justice Anthony Kennedy, 81, could retire soon. Kennedy has ruled favorably toward abortion in the past, so if he were to be replaced by someone more conservative, there could be the 5-4 majority on the court needed to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Supreme Court’s standard of viability has made it difficult for states to adopt pro-life legislation that will stand, though scientific advances have helped. The strictest laws currently in place ban abortion at 20 weeks. These laws have been enacted by 18 states, according to Concerned Women for America.
In January, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill for a national 20-week ban. The 51 votes in favor fell nine short.
Mississippi adopted a 15-week bill in March, but it was halted by a court challenge shortly after Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law. At press time, Louisiana lawmakers appeared close to approving a similar 15-week measure, with the caveat that it would take effect only if Mississippi’s law makes it through the courts successfully. A Sept. 24 hearing on the Mississippi statute was scheduled after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
In Iowa, opponents of the new law feel well-girded for the fight due to legal precedent.
In March 2013, North Dakota and Arkansas passed heartbeat bills that were struck down in federal court. Both states petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their cases but were declined in January 2016.
Other states have also considered heartbeat bills, most notably Ohio, where in December 2016 Gov. John Kasich vetoed legislation that had passed the House and Senate because—despite his pro-life leanings—he considered it unconstitutional based on the North Dakota and Arkansas cases.
Kasich’s decision is similar to the ideology of numerous pro-life advocates who emphasize a more incremental legislative approach, particularly 20-week bans, due to the current makeup of the courts.
Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, said legal experts behind the scenes must decide whether the heartbeat bill provides the best vehicle to challenge Roe v. Wade, but that she values the legislation because it not only can save babies, it can also change hearts.
“Anytime we have the ability to inform people about what it is that abortion destroys, it changes the dynamics,” she said. “As long as the left can keep the argument about ‘my rights, my body,’ they’re winning, but the minute we shift the discussion to human development and human rights, we win.”
Iowa enacted a 20-week law last year, but many legislators there felt compelled to take more aggressive action, according to Rep. Fry.
“Why would we not want to go for the most conservative legislation we can get?” Fry said. “When you talk about a heartbeat, there’s a medical definition. We define death by the absence of a heartbeat, so why would we not define the presence of life by that same beating heart?”
There’s also the stark reality that, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 99 percent of all abortions occur in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy—before the best of current legislation could save a baby’s life.
Furthermore, for more than 20 years, there has been a steady trend toward earlier abortions. The CDC’s latest report, for 2014, showed that two-thirds of abortions that year occurred within the first eight weeks after gestation, including 40.7 percent in the first six weeks—the bull’s-eye of the heartbeat bill.
Though the number of total abortions has been declining, the percentage of abortions occurring in the first six weeks has nearly tripled in the past 20 years. CDC reports show there were 15 percent in 1995, 29 percent in 2005, and that they topped 40 percent for the first time in 2014.
Those numbers represent thousands upon thousands of snuffed-out lives, a chilling fact.
“Abortion on demand is like a cancer that has metastasized in the American body politic,” said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and past president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We’ve had it now for two generations—two generations.
“I am for wrestling it to the ground any legal way we can until it’s down for the count … [until it’s] cast onto the ash heap of history.”
WHEN DO WOMEN HAVE ABORTIONS?
2014 (Most Recent Data Available)
67% 8 weeks or less
24.5% 9-13 weeks
3.3% 14-15 weeks
2.0% 16-17 weeks
1.9% 18-20 weeks
1.3% 21+ weeks
SOURCE: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abortion statistics. The CDC has been conducting abortion surveillance since 1969 and since 1995 has released an annual report. The most recent report in Nov. 2017 was based on the latest available numbers for 2014.
Heartbeat Bill — Iowa adopted in May the nation’s strictest abortion legislation, banning most abortions at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, usually around six weeks after gestation. A legal challenge was expected.
15-Week Bill — A federal judge in March temporarily blocked a new Mississippi law banning most abortions at 15 weeks.
20-Week Laws — Eighteen states have laws banning abortions after 20 weeks, according to Concerned Women for America.
Supreme Court Standard — Roe v. Wade (1973) legalized abortion nationwide until a baby is viable to survive outside the womb (24 weeks and sometimes earlier).