Bloomberg Law
Oct. 27, 2022, 8:55 AM

Iowa ‘Heartbeat’ Abortion Ban Heads to Trial Court Showdown

Mary Anne Pazanowski
Mary Anne Pazanowski
Legal Reporter

Iowa’s GOP governor will press a trial court on Friday to lift a 2019 order that blocked the state from enforcing its ban on abortions after about the sixth week of pregnancy.

Abortion is currently legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy, with an exception after that point when the procedure is needed to save the mother’s life. But that will change if the trial court dissolves the injunction against the so-called “heartbeart” law, in which event most abortions will be prohibited in the state.

The Polk County District Court’s prior ruling must be vacated because it was entered under then-applicable US and Iowa Supreme Court precedent, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said. The federal precedent is no longer good law, in light of the US Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that there is no federal constitutional right to abortion, Reynolds said in a motion to reopen the case.

Reynolds is following a strategy that’s been pushed by several major anti-abortion advocacy groups, arguing that courts must revive old state abortion laws they blocked several years ago based on pre-Dobbs law. The argument rests on a federal procedural rule that provides for relief from a decision that’s “based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated,” or when “applying it prospectively is no longer equitable.”

The comparable Iowa rule, while granting trial courts authority to consider vacating a prior judgment, doesn’t allow Reynolds’ motion, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland Inc., Emma Goldman Clinic, and Dr. Jill Meadows said in their filing opposing the motion. The state rule doesn’t list a change in the law as a ground for vacatur, and “no Iowa court has held that it has the power to vacate a permanent injunction” on those grounds, they said. PPH is now known as Planned Parenthood North Central States.

Reynolds’ motion is also untimely, as it was filed more than one year after the injunction was entered, the providers said. They noted that Reynolds declined to timely appeal the decision.

Judge Celene Gogerty is presiding over the case.

State Constitutional Claim

Reynolds also argued that the trial court must, at least, take a new look at the six-week ban, given the Iowa Supreme Court’s June decision in Planned Parenthood of Heartland Inc. v. Reynolds ex rel. Iowa. The state’s top court vacated an injunction that had blocked a 24-hour abortion delay law and, in doing so, overruled a 2018 decision that held that the Iowa Constitution protects a fundamental right to abortion.

The 2018 decision meant that state courts had to apply strict scrutiny when considering abortion restrictions. Under that standard, the state had to prove that the restriction served a compelling government interest in the narrowest way possible. But after the June decision, an abortion restriction can be upheld if it passes a laxer level of analysis. PPH and Reynolds disagree about what level now applies.

PPH argued that the six-week ban is still invalid under the Iowa Constitution. In its June opinion, the state supreme court said that the undue burden test remains the standard under which abortion restrictions will be judged in the state—and the ban clearly can’t pass that test, the providers said.

The supreme court’s decision didn’t clearly identify the undue burden test as the relevant standard, Reynolds responded. Instead, it favored the rational basis test. This test is highly deferential to the state, which has to prove only that a law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.

The district court has inherent authority to modify or vacate the injunction, the governor also said.

The six-week ban requires providers to perform tests to detect a fetal “heartbeat,” which usually occurs at about six weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period, with exceptions for medical emergencies, rape, and incest. Embryos don’t have hearts at this gestational stage, so an ultrasound actually measures electrical impulses, not a true heartbeat, providers say.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D) isn’t involved in the case.

Chris Schandevel, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, who is arguing before the court on behalf of Reynolds, told Bloomberg Law that “Iowa has a strong interest in protecting the most fundamental of our human rights—the right to life—and this law helps secure that right.” Alan Ostergren of Des Moines also represents Reynolds.

American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Foundation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Shuttleworth & Ingersoll PLC represent the providers. ACLU of Iowa declined to comment before the hearing.

Planned Parenthood receives funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

The case is Planned Parenthood of the Heartland Inc. v. Reynolds, Iowa Dist. Ct., No. EQCE 083074, hearing scheduled 10/28/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Anne Pazanowski in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at; Maya Earls at; Brian Flood at