Abortion comments – floor debate

January 27, 2021


This is the first time I am speaking to this body. I haven’t had the opportunity to meet many of you. I am new to the legislature -- only three weeks in. And I’ll be honest, I had kind of hoped for a honeymoon period. I had hoped for a chance to make friends across the aisle and to build relationships before the heavy stuff kicked in. But then here comes this abortion amendment right at the start. And that makes it really hard. Few things have divided this country more than the abortion issue, and I really regret that.

We might never agree on the philosophical questions surrounding abortion. What we do know for sure, as an absolute fact, is that abortion laws dramatically affect women and girls and those who can become pregnant. What is so shocking about this amendment is the way that it totally writes them out of the equation. This amendment would completely eliminate the state constitutional right to abortion. With this amendment, once a person becomes pregnant, her life is no longer her own. There is no right to abortion even if the pregnancy threatens her life and would leave any existing children motherless. And if a thirteen-year-old girl is raped and gets pregnant, under this amendment, the Iowa Constitution would have nothing for her. Apparently, a person could survive an attack by a sexual predator only to become a victim of this legislature.

The supporters of this bill tell a story. It goes like this. They say that since the beginning of Iowa’s statehood, abortion was illegal here. So, they say, the Constitution cannot possibly be interpreted to provide a right to abortion. But about three years ago, their story goes, activist judges on the Iowa Supreme Court overreached and held that there was a fundamental right to abortion in the Iowa Constitution. Now the supporters of this bill say a constitutional amendment is necessary to reverse that overreach. And they cleverly say that it does not ban abortion -- it just doesn’t guarantee a right of abortion.

This narrative is wrong. First of all, the history of abortion in Iowa is not so simple. For one thing, at the time the Iowa Constitution was adopted, there was no state law against abortion. There had been some restrictions on abortion in the territorial code before Iowa became a state, but the legislature chose not to include those laws in the first state code in 1851. So when the Iowa Constitution was adopted in 1857, there was no law against abortion. Later, a state law was passed to ban abortion, but it was banned only after “quickening,” which is the time when a woman would feel the fetus move. Quickening usually happens at between 16 to 25 weeks. That means that abortion was legal during the first four to six months of pregnancy, or well into the second trimester. And even after abortion was made illegal, women were never prosecuted for getting an abortion, and doctors who performed abortions were only rarely convicted, usually when the woman was seriously injured or died. By and large, Iowa’s abortion law was used to protect women.

And the Iowa Supreme Court’s recognition of abortion did not just spring out of nowhere. There is a long history of constitutional protection for decisions related to procreation – the decision of whether to have a child. That is a critical part of the privacy and individual freedom that we prize as Americans. After all, are we really going to allow the police to arrest someone for taking birth control? Yet, if this amendment passes, that could happen – some forms of birth control could be considered abortive because they prevent an embryo from implanting.

But the most dangerous thing being said in support of this amendment is that it won’t ban abortion. The supporters of this bill have a very lawyerly explanation: they aren’t banning abortion, they say; they are just taking away the fundamental constitutional right so that the legislature can decide whether to restrict or ban abortion. But a page of history is worth a volume of logic. Bills to limit or ban abortion are introduced in the legislature every year, and at least one passes almost every session. The courts and the constitution have been the only things standing in the way. Not to mention – does anyone see the irony here? The people who are pushing to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion are the exact same people who are pushing for a constitutional right to gun ownership. So for guns, apparently, it does matter whether there is a constitutional right -- because for the sponsors of these bills, the legislature should be free to make laws to control women’s bodies, but not free to make common-sense gun laws.

This amendment is an attempt to turn back the clock to some imaginary time when there were no abortions. But make no mistake – even when it was illegal, there were still plenty of abortions. The difference back then was that a lot of people died getting them because they couldn’t go to a real doctor. They died of septic infections. They bled to death. Eliminating the constitutional right to abortion won’t stop abortions. But it will dramatically affect the lives and health of people who happen to have been born female. This is why the Iowa Supreme Court held that both Due Process and Equal Protection require a fundamental right to abortion. It was not judicial overreaching. It was just right. 

The proposed bill is not just any abortion law. It is a constitutional amendment. And it does not just limit specific things like late-term abortion or public funding. It takes the constitutional right to abortion away altogether. If this amendment passes, there will be no guaranteed right of abortion under any circumstance. Not for rape. Not for incest. Not even to save the life of the mother. Once a person becomes pregnant, their fundamental right as a human being to control their own body would cease to exist entirely. This is an extreme bill, and Iowans do not support it. The number of negative comments we have received about it is a testament to that.

As a legislature, we should give people modern and practical solutions, not old and worn-out ideology. If we are serious about reducing unwanted pregnancies, we should support family planning services, which have been proven to work. The fact is, the number of abortions in Iowa was steadily declining until Governor Branstad cut funding for these services, and then we began to see a dramatic increase in abortions again. We should also focus on COVID relief, increasing wages, and improving access to childcare so that people have the resources they need to care for children.

Finally, this is just bad government. Instead of coming together to work on the public health crisis, COVID relief for businesses and families, and the everyday needs of Iowans, the majority is pushing an out-of-touch, radically partisan agenda. There is so much we need to do to help Iowans right now. We could do that together, and that is what we should be doing. Not this.

I urge the body to vote no on this bill.