DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday called a special legislative session to pursue new abortion restrictions after the state Supreme Court declined to reinstate a 2018 ban after about six weeks of pregnancy.
The court was split 3-3 last month and did not issue a decision on the merits of the law, leaving open the possibility that the GOP-controlled Legislature would try to pass a similar ban. In the meantime, abortion remains legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Lawmakers will meet on July 11.
“Iowans deserve to have their legislative body address the issue of abortion expeditiously and all unborn children deserve to have their lives protected by the government as the fetal heartbeat law did,” Reynolds wrote in the order.
The blocked law banned abortion once cardiac activity can be detected, which is usually around six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. Medical experts say the cardiac activity is not an actual heartbeat but rather an initial flutter of electric movement within cells in an embryo.
Democrats in the Legislature immediately issued statements denouncing the expected restrictions as at odds with the majority of Iowa residents. Polling shows most U.S. adults, including Iowans, support at least some access to abortion in general, even as views on the issue are complicated. Few say abortion should be illegal in all cases.
Most Republican-led states have significantly curbed abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Separately, the Iowa Supreme Court in 2022 reversed an opinion that said the state constitution affirms a fundamental right to abortion.
After those rulings, Reynolds declined to call a special session last year to enact new restrictions, instead choosing to work through the state courts to try to get the 2018 ban into effect. The law, which included exceptions for medical emergencies, rape, incest and fetal abnormality, had been blocked by a 2019 district court ruling.
Though it references the 2018 law, Reynolds’ order doesn’t explicitly define the restrictions she thinks lawmakers should enact now.
Some in the state want to see lawmakers go further.
“We will always encourage and advocate toward the day when all innocent life is cherished and protected by law, from conception to natural death. But at minimum, we want to see Heartbeat repassed,” Drew Zahn, a spokesperson for the conservative Christian group The Family Leader said in a text message.
Any new law is likely to be challenged in state court.
Iowa's high court has not resolved whether earlier rulings that applied an “undue burden test” for abortion laws remain in effect. The undue burden is an intermediate level of scrutiny that requires laws do not create a significant obstacle to abortion. Lawyers for the state argued the law should be analyzed using rational basis review, the lowest level of scrutiny to judge legal challenges.
“The constitutional standard is clear in the state of Iowa and to see a governor of the state really be that dismissive of the rule of law in Iowa is really very, very alarming to me," said Pete McRoberts, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. “We will be there in full force, of course, when she does reconvene the Legislature."
Reynolds has ordered a special session just one other year, in 2021, when lawmakers came together in two separate special sessions to approve the drawing of congressional and legislative districts.