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Iowa Republicans seek to weaken courts on abortion with state amendment

More than half of the Republican-dominated Iowa Senate has quickly signed on to a constitutional amendment aimed at weakening the state court system’s pow...

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — More than half of the Republican-dominated Iowa Senate has quickly signed on to a constitutional amendment aimed at weakening the state court system's power to review abortion restrictions, just days after an Iowa judge overturned what would have been the nation's broadest such limit.

The amendment would expressly state that the Iowa Constitution "does not secure or protect a right to abortion." Spurred by last week's legal defeat of a measure seeking to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, it's a brash attempt at nullifying Iowa Supreme Court precedent declaring that women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies.

Several other conservative states have deployed the tactic of a constitutional amendment, which in Iowa would have to twice clear both chambers of the Legislature before going to voters for ratification.

The move lays the groundwork to ban abortions altogether in Iowa should the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that established a woman's legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

"When the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, with a constitutional amendment the people and their elected representatives would be able to again decide the issue rather than the state courts in Iowa," said Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, a Washington-based pro-life law firm and advocacy group.

Voters in Alabama and West Virginia passed similar constitutional amendments in November. Tennessee passed one in 2014.

At the root of much of the state activity is the belief that Roe could be overturned soon. Such a decision would return the regulation of abortion to the states the belief is that those with constitutional amendments declaring no right to an abortion exists under the state constitution would have a better chance of abortion limiting legislation surviving legal challenges.

"States hostile to reproductive rights are working to enshrine in the constitution or state statutes something that would come into effect if the federal right is undercut or overturned," said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel of state policy for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based nonprofit legal advocacy group.

Heidi Sieck, CEO of #VoteProChoice, a national political campaign that works to elect pro-choice candidates, said even if the Roe fight is lost in the short term, many women passionate about women's rights have been compelled to run for office and are winning.

"Our pro-choice voters are going to rise up en masse. Women are not going back to a pre-Roe environment. They're just not," she said.

The proposed Iowa amendment was introduced Jan. 24 by Republican Sen. Jake Chapman, two days after a state court judge struck down yet another attempt by the Legislature to limit abortion. It has the backing of 29 out of 50 senators.

The legislation came days after Judge Michael Huppert's ruling striking down as unconstitutional the "fetal heartbeat" law that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May. The measure would have outlawed abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Huppert concluded that the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in a June 2018 ruling that women have a fundamental right to an abortion under the Iowa Constitution and the heartbeat law violated that precedent.

In that ruling the court found unconstitutional a law passed by the Legislature and signed by former Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, in April 2017. It required women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours before a doctor could perform the procedure.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote the majority opinion saying the state's capacity to legislate "pursuant to its own moral scruples is necessarily curbed by the constitution."

It is that type of sweeping conclusion that infuriates socially conservative lawmakers and organizations.

"The notion that a woman has a right to an abortion under Iowa's constitution gravely misinterprets our state's constitution," Chapman said.

He accused the court of creating a right that doesn't exist in the state constitution.

The amendment "puts the responsibility back onto the legislative body. We are the ones who are going to make the determination of what should or should not be," he said.

The heartbeat bill and the 72-hour waiting period law were among several attempts to restrict abortion since Republicans took a majority of seats in the Iowa Legislature in the November 2016 election.

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