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Sebastian's Point

Sebastian's Point is a weekly column written by one of our members regarding timely events or analysis of relevant ideas, which impact the Culture of Life. All regular members are invited to submit a column for publication at Columns should be between 800 to 1300 words and comply with the high standards expected in academic writing, including proper citations of authority or assertions referred to in your column. Please see, Submission Requirements for more details.

Iowa Fetal Heartbeat Law and Its History

Jenifer Bowen  |  01 February 2023

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…,”[1] wrote Charles Dickens, the renowned nineteenth-century author. Words that aptly apply in Iowa.


Prior to 2017, Iowa was worse than New York[2] at protecting preborn babies.  Abortion was legal through nine months, with very little restriction.  Even with a pro-abortion state Senate, one piece of pro-life legislation passed in 2015.[3] Upon passage,[4] women pursuing abortions must be allowed to see their ultrasound images and must be told their options: carrying to birth, retaining parental rights; continuing to term, placing the baby for adoption; or terminating. Statistics show abortions are reduced by 70%-90% when parents see ultrasounds.[5]


Iowa made history the next year, as voters ushered in a pro-life trifecta with the re-election of then-Governor Terry Branstad and majorities in the House and Senate.  Citizens in 93 of 99 counties voted for a pro-life U.S. President.


Those results allowed for the passage of a monumental amount of 2017-2018 pro-life legislation.  Iowa moved from “worse than New York”[6] to “one of the most pro-life states”[7] in two years with the enactment of:[8] 20-week ban, defunding abortion providers in the State Family Planning budget, a safe haven expansion, trafficking of preborn baby parts banned and a rejection of Iowa’s Supreme Court ruling allowing parents to sue doctors for wrongful birth–wrongful life.


Even with so many pro-life laws, the House and Senate did not marshal support for that year’s life at conception bill.[9]


The 2018 Fetal Heartbeat Bill[10] made it through both legislative chambers.  This law bans most abortions after preborn babies’ heartbeats are detected.  It contains many exceptions: miscarriage; the result of rape, reported within forty-five days to law enforcement, health agency; the result of incest reported within one hundred-forty days to law enforcement, health agency; an “incompatible with life” fetal abnormality; serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function and when a mother’s life is in jeopardy.


On May 4, 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed this bill.[11] She affirmed that it would “likely start a court battle”[12] and “that courts may even put a hold on the law until it reaches the Supreme Court.”


After the law passed, Iowa’s Planned Parenthood[13], tweeted[14], decrying the law as the “nation’s most restrictive abortion ban.”  It was in 2018.[15]  They tweeted a vow to sue, asking the courts to intervene before it took effect in July.


Days later, Planned Parenthood, Emma Goldman Clinic, and ACLU sued.[16]  Upon filing, Planned Parenthood claimed the law[17] was “blatantly unconstitutional” and “extremely harmful to women.”  A few weeks later, a district court judge placed the law under a temporary injunction.[18]


In September, the abortion industry’s attorneys asked the judge[19] to overturn the law, without a trial.  The pro-life Thomas More Society[20] was representing the governor, pro bono. Long-time Attorney General Tom Miller refused to defend it due to his pro-abortion extremism.[21]


In the pro-life community, some speculated that pro-abortion attorneys might not want a trial as preborn children’s humanity would be displayed.  With science and technology on the side of life, it is possible they did not want the public to know fetal facts, such as a baby’s heart often starts beating sixteen days after conception.[22] 


Following attorney arguments, during December 2018 court proceedings,[23] Huppert indicated he would decide if he would bar the law or send it to trial.


He announced his decision on January 22, 2019, exactly forty-six years after Roe was enacted. Ruling in favor of the uninspected, unregulated abortion industry, he called the law “unconstitutional”,[24] while granting their “no trial” request.


Weeks later, Governor Reynolds announced she would not appeal Huppert’s ruling against the law that could have saved thousands of preborn babies a year.[25]  


On June 17, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an unexpected decision.  Upending its 2018 ruling, they ruled Iowa’s constitution does not protect a woman’s right to an abortion.[26] Days later, the nation’s highest court overturned Roe and Doe, long-standing court decisions,[27] that nearly fifty years prior, unleashed abortions through all nine months of pregnancy for almost any reason, across America.


Following those rulings, Governor Reynolds announced she would seek to protect preborn lives through the courts.[28] She asked the Iowa Supreme Court to rehear Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end Roe[29] and requested the Iowa courts lift the injunction.  Within days, Iowa’s Supreme Court denied her request to re-hear PPH IV.[30]  


The governor is now represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF),[31] pro bono, as long-time Democrat Attorney General Tom Miller refused again to defend the law.[32]  He never faced any consequences. 


In August 2022, ADF asked a state trial court[33] to let the law stand.[34]  A month later, pro-abortion ACLU filed a brief stating there was “no legal precedent for reinstating the blocked law.”[35]


On October 28, 2022, attorneys argued before District Court Judge Celene Gogerty.[36] ADF Attorney Chris Schandevel said the injunction rests on three court decisions: Iowa’s Supreme Court 2018 ruling that the constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1973 and 1992.[37]  As those are overruled, Gogerty should lift the injunction and let the law take effect.


Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU legal director and Planned Parenthood attorney, stated, “there is no legal basis for reopening a case that was closed in 2019.”[38]


Gogerty questioned her own authority asking,[39] “...I don’t have the authority, do I?”  She guaranteed her ruling would come within sixty days.


Forty-five days later, she issued[40] another blow to the still-inactive law,[41] refusing to lift the injunction as “there was no process for reversing a permanent injunction.”  A day later, ADF filed an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.[42] Since then, no word has come from the court. 


Abortion extremist, Tom Miller, was Iowa’s Attorney General for nearly forty years. In November 2022, he lost his re-election bid to pro-life attorney, Brenna Bird.  On her first day in office, her staff announced[43] that they will also argue in defense of this long-embattled law.


Elections in 2022, further strengthened Iowa’s pro-life trifecta.  Voters bolstered pro-life majorities in the state House and Senate and re-elected the pro-life governor.  Despite what appears to be a continuous pro-life mandate from voters, the governor, who declined calls for a special session[44] after Roe and Doe fell, reiterated[45] that she will not introduce life-saving legislation until the Supreme Court’s eventual decision.  Leaders in both chambers concur with the continued “wait and see” path.[46]


This law has only seen judicial defeats over five years.  It remains at its final destination, as the court has not announced its ultimate fate.  This life-saving legislation has not saved one preborn baby.


Tragically, as an unintended outcome of Roe and Doe’s demise, Iowa is an abortion sanctuary. This, despite being one of the nation’s most pro-life states not too long ago.[47]


Following Roe’s overturn, Iowa’s Planned Parenthood announced, through an Iowa news channel, that they are bringing abortion-seeking women into Iowa before the twentieth week of pregnancy, via newly-hired “abortion navigators.”[48]  The news station called these hirings “proactive thinking.”


Iowa’s abortion chain maintains they are continually arranging travel and expenses for women in states bordering Iowa and from as far away as Texas and Louisiana.[49]  They say they cannot keep up with the demand from women wanting to travel to Iowa to kill their preborn child.[50]  They assert that Sioux City’s Planned Parenthood is “a critical point of access for the Midwest.”[51]  That abortion site was one of twenty-one locations Planned Parenthood closed between 2013-2017,[52] reopening in 2020.[53]


Based on their assertions, it is possible that Iowa abortion rates began skyrocketing in 2022, as women from many states started traveling to Iowa for abortions.  In America’s heartland, abortion laws vary by state.[54] Some fully protect preborn babies, others offer unfettered abortions.


As a consequence of not protecting preborn babies prior to the twentieth week of pregnancy, Iowa’s abortion rates have climbed in recent years.  Since the law was signed, 14,208 preborn children were reportedly killed[55] between 2018-2021.  As 2021 reported rates are preliminary from the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (IHSS), those numbers could rise.  


2020 is the last reported year from IHSS. There were 4,057 abortions that year, indicating a big spike from previous years.  4,057 abortions that year means that eleven preborn babies were killed every day.  A kindergarten class, aborted, every two days in the small state of Iowa.


It will be a year or two before accurate accountings are available for the abortion sanctuary state, as reports come out a year or more later. Using the numbers from 2020, the last fully reported year, a conservative estimate shows that 18,265 preborn children were killed from 2018 to 2022.  


Taking that same cautious estimate, 22,322 abortions will likely have happened by the end of 2023, in only the years since this bill became an unutilized law. Unless Iowa’s high court intervenes or another abortion ban is introduced, passed, and signed into law this legislative session, preborn children, by the thousands, will continue to be put to death in this Midwestern state.


As evidenced here, incremental legislation, like Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law, can save tens of thousands of lives, even within a few years.  Efforts to pass common-sense legislation can save untold numbers of preborn children, while the work continues to see the ultimate goal accomplished - every preborn baby protected, to the highest extent of the law.



[1]  Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London, England: Chapman and Hall, based in London, 1859.

[2]  Bowen, Jenifer. “Is this one reason Iowa abortion rates continue to tumble?” Life Right Action. 2018.

[3]  Leys, Tony. “Legislators pass sonogram language for abortions.” Des Moines Register. June 4. 2015.

[4] The Iowa Legislature. “BillBook: Senate File 505.” The Iowa Legislature. December 31. 2015.

[5]  Gius, Mark. “The Impact of Ultrasound Laws on the Demand for Abortions by Young Women.” North American Business Press. December 5. 2011.

[6] Live Action Newsroom. “In two years, Iowa has become one of the most pro-life states in the nation.” September 16. 2018.

[7] Bowen, Jenifer. “Is this one reason Iowa abortion rates continue to tumble?” Life Right Action. 2018.

[8] Bowen, Jenifer. “Is the pro-life movement dying in Iowa? Caffeinated Thoughts. August 20. 2018.

[9] Petroski, William and Pfannenstiel, Brianne. “20-week abortion ban advances, but 'life at conception' bill fails in Iowa Legislature.” Des Moines Register. March 2. 2017.

[10] The Iowa Legislature. “BillBook: Senate File 359.” The Iowa Legislature. May 4. 2018.

[11] Petroski, William and Pfannenstiel, Brianne. “The nation's strictest abortion ban is now law. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs 'fetal heartbeat' bill.” The Des Moines Register. May 4. 2018.

[12] Ingber, Sasha. “Iowa Bans Most Abortions As Governor Signs 'Heartbeat' Bill.” National Public Radio (NPR.) May 5. 2018.

[13] Planned Parenthood North Central States.

[14] Planned Parenthood North Central States. “Twitter tweets.” Twitter. May 4. 2018. 

[15] Petroski, William and Pfannenstiel, Brianne. “Nation’s strictest abortion ban is now law. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs 'fetal heartbeat' bill.” The Des Moines Register.

[16] Chappell, Bill. “Groups File Lawsuit To Block Iowa's New 'Heartbeat' Abortion Law.” National Public Radio (NPR.) May 15. 2018.

 [17] Chappell, Bill. “Groups File Lawsuit To Block Iowa's New 'Heartbeat' Abortion Law.” National Public Radio (NPR.) May 15. 2018.

[18] Chappell, Bill. “Judge Temporarily Blocks Iowa's 'Fetal Heartbeat' Abortion Law.” National Public Radio (NPR.) June 1. 2018.

[19] Gruber-Miller, Stephen. “Planned Parenthood asks judge to decide fetal heartbeat case without trial.” The Des Moines Register. September 26. 2018.

[20] Associated Press (AP.) “Conservative law firm OK'd to defend Iowa in abortion suit.” The Des Moines Register. May 21. 2018.

[21] Gruber-Miller, Stephen. “Decision not to defend fetal heartbeat law 'a unique case,' attorney general's office says.” The Des Moines Register. July 6. 2018.  

[22] Prigg, Mark. “A baby's first heartbeat is just 16 days after conception: Breakthrough could lead to new cures for congenital disease.” October 11. 2016.

[23] Boshart, Rod. “Iowa ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion law has day in court.” The Gazette. December 7. 2018. “

[24] Ramm, Michaela. “Judge declares fetal heartbeat law unconstitutional.” The Gazette. January 22. 2019.

[25] Gruber-Miller, Stephen and Rodriguez, Barbara. “Kim Reynolds won't appeal ruling striking down 'fetal heartbeat' law.” The Des Moines Register. February 18. 2019.

[26] Stracqualursi, Veronica. “Iowa Supreme Court rules state constitution does not protect right to abortion.” CNN. June 17. 2022.,%2C%20in%20Des%20Moines%2C%20Iowa.&text=The%20Iowa%20Supreme%20Court%20on,potentially%20enact%20stricter%20abortion%20measures

[27] Liptak, Adam. “In 6-to-3 Ruling, Supreme Court Ends Nearly 50 Years of Abortion Rights.” New York Times. June 24. 2022. Updated on November 2. 2022.

[28] Reynolds, Governor Kim. “Gov. Reynolds and legislative leaders announce legal action to protect life.” Office of the Governor of Iowa. June 28. 2022.

[29] Pierson, Brendan.“Iowa seeks to revive 'heartbeat' law after Supreme Court abortion ruling.” Rueters. June 28. 2022.

[30] Gruber-Miller, Stephen. “Iowa Supreme Court denies Kim Reynolds' request to revisit 24-hour abortion waiting period.” Des Moines Register. July 5. 2022. Updated July 6. 2022.

[31] Laird, Rox. “Iowa governor asks court to reinstate fetal heartbeat law after Roe reversal.” Courthouse News Service. August 11. 2022.

[32] Gruber-Miller, Stephen. “Iowa asks state court to allow 'fetal heartbeat' abortion law to go into effect.” Des Moines Register. August 11. 2022.

[33] Ostergren, Alan and Schandevel, Christopher. “Iowa fetal heartbeat motion to dissolve.” Kirkwood Institute and Alliance Defending Freedom. August 11. 2022.

[34] Alliance Defending Freedom. “ADF asks court to allow Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law to take effect.” August 11. 2022.

[35] Murphy, Erin. “No legal precedent for reinstating blocked abortion law in Iowa, ACLU argues in court.” The Gazette. September 14. 2022. Updated September 14. 2022.

[36] Mollenbeck, Andrew. “Iowa's fetal heartbeat law goes before a judge.” October 28. 2022. 

[37] Mollenbeck, Andrew. “Iowa's fetal heartbeat law goes before a judge.” October 28. 2022.

[38] Sostaric, Katarina. “Lawyer for Reynolds tells court 'fetal heartbeat' abortion ban should be reinstated.” Iowa Public Radio. October 28. 2022.

[39] Strong, Jared. “Judge questions her own authority to reinstate Iowa abortion ban.” Iowa Capital Dispatch. October 28. 2022.

[40] Gans, Jared. “Iowa six-week abortion ban remains permanently blocked.” The Hill. December 13. 2022.

[41] Associated Press. “Iowa judge blocks effort to ban most abortions in the state.” Associated Press. December 12. 2022.

[42] Ostergren, Alan and Schandevel, Christopher. “Certified Notice of Appeal.” Alliance Defending Freedom. December 13. 2022.

[43] Dunn, Valeree. “Iowa's new Attorney General backs Gov. Reynolds' lawsuits, fetal heartbeat bill.” January 4. 2023.

[44] Richardson, Ian. “Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds: No plans to call special legislative session on abortion.” June 29. 2022. Updated June 30. 2022. Des Moines Register.

[45] Barton, Tom. “Iowa GOP lawmakers say it’s up to court to act first on abortion limits.” The Gazette. January 2. 2023. Updated January 5. 2023.

[46] Sostaric, Katarina. “Iowa Republican leaders say they want to wait for court ruling before restricting abortion.” Iowa Public Radio. December 21. 2022.

[47] Live Action Newsroom. “In two years, Iowa has become one of the most pro-life states in the nation.” September 16. 2018.

[48] Surrency, Justin. “SUPCO ruling creates new navigator position for Planned Parenthood.” June 29. 2022.

[49] “Iowa Planned Parenthood clinics seeing influx of patients from out of state.” August 3. 2022.,coming%20from%20neighboring%20states%20like%20Missouri%20and%20Nebraska.

[50] McHugh, Mark. “Planned Parenthood Office In Northwest Iowa Sees Rise In Out Of State Patients.” July 29. 2022.

[51] Crawford, Kendall. “Sioux City Planned Parenthood clinic adjusts to meet out-of-state patient needs.” Iowa Public Radio. July 20. 2022.

[52] Petroski, William. “Planned Parenthood to close four Iowa clinics after legislative defunding.” The Des Moines Register. May 18. 2017.

[53] Williams RN, BSN, Anne Marie. “Iowa Planned Parenthood that shut down in 2017 has reopened.” October 16. 2020.

[54] Bowen, Jenifer. “Abortion across America’s Heartland: Are preborn children safer since Roe’s fall?” October 23. 2022.

[55] “Health Statistics - Data and Publications: Vital Statistics of Iowa Annual Reports.” State of Iowa, Department of Health and Human Services.


Jenifer Bowen, a long-time leader in the pro-life movement, including a long tenure as CEO of Iowa Right to Life, was diagnosed in 2019 with a lifelong battle of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. She remains passionate in her defense of preborn babies and their mothers, the infirm and elderly.

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