DES MOINES, Iowa – On Monday, an Iowa Senate subcommittee approved SJR 2, a proposed constitutional amendment that would add abortion neutrality language to Iowa’s Constitution, after hearing public feedback.
The subcommittee consisted of State Senators Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, and Dennis Guth, R-Klemme. Schultz and Guth supported the resolution, Bisignano opposed it.
Republicans introduced the constitutional amendment responding to the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision ruling in 2018 (Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds). The majority opinion stated that the law requiring a 72-hour waiting period before an abortion violated Iowa’s due process clause and equal protection clause, thus finding a right to abortion in the state constitution.
The language of the proposed constitutional amendment reads, “To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.”
The Iowa House of Representatives on Wednesday last week passed their version 55 to 44. The Iowa Senate will have to pass the measure, and then the Iowa Legislature would need to pass it again in the 90th General Assembly before it goes before Iowa voters.
The resolution passing in the Iowa Senate is a foregone conclusion, introduced by Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, the measure has 29 sponsors, and it only needs 26 votes to pass.
The Iowa Senate passed a similar resolution during the 88th General Assembly that stalled in the Iowa House.
Opponents speak out.
During the subcommittee, public feedback in opposition to the resolution was heated at times.
“I am deeply opposed to SJR 2, and I begged for this offensive legislation to stop. Abortion is not a political matter. Personal ideologies are being inserted into government and health care with this bill. I’m required to detail my private medical history for you in order to defend my right to an abortion. You will never understand how inappropriate This feels while speaking with my state senators,” Lauren Vandebosch, a Des Moines resident, said.
Some opponents of the bill attempted to shame the legislators.
“I had an abortion just like one in four people in the US do. At the time of my abortion, I was so physically and mentally unhealthy at 15 years old that carrying my rapist baby to term would have killed me. I’m a better and stronger person today because of my abortion. Despite the many crises our state is currently facing, like the almost 5000 COVID deaths, the unemployment rates and the pending mass evictions. You have decided to prioritize restricting abortion access this legislative session. Shame on all of you for failing the people of Iowa during the covid 19 pandemic,” Frieda Beckwith, another resident of Des Moines, stated.
One person who gave testimony attempted to shame the legislators for being “old white CIS men,” insinuating they could not have an opinion on the subject based on that. One opponent apologized “on behalf of” all of the men who spoke in favor of the bill.
Jane Robinette from Urbandale called abortion a fundamental right and dismissed pro-life arguments as solely a religious belief.
“In our Constitution, the fundamental right to control our own lives and destiny guaranteed in our US Constitution cannot exist without the right to choose our lives. My loved ones and friends were able to choose their own lives, their psychological, emotional, literal lives, because of the court’s acknowledgment that the right to privacy and right to control one’s own destiny means nothing without autonomy over one’s body and those rights are protected by the Constitution. You may believe that autonomous life begins at conception, even though that life cannot be sustained alone. That is a religious belief that you are free to believe and to advocate for others to follow. But no one should be able to legislatively or electorally enforce their religious beliefs on others at the expense of others’ lives. That is not freedom of religion,” she said.
Jean Swenson said that if SJR 2 goes into effect, women will go back to having “unsafe abortions.”
“There have (sic) been abortion since the beginning of time and no amount of legislation will stop abortion. What SJR 2 will do is stop legal, safe abortion and women will die because of it. Before abortion was legal, many people went to extraordinary lengths and risked their health in order to access abortion,” she said.
Jamey Burch-Elliot, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates and Planned Parenthood North Central States, said late-term abortion is not a “medical term.”
“This bill is nothing but a coordinated attempt to restrict Iowans access to health care, full stop. This is one of the most extreme attacks in Iowa history. And this is the third year that we’ve seen it, and it’s abundantly clear to me after hearing other folks talk about it, that the true meaning of this bill is to attempt to ban abortion in Iowa, or at the very least restrict abortion to the point of inaccessibility,” she said.
Jordan Beach from Urbandale directed pointed remarks at the legislators.
“Stop introducing more undue burdens that disproportionately affect low-income people since any privileged person can still access safe, legal abortion whenever and wherever they want. As politicians, you do not know the best private health care decision for every pregnant person in every circumstance. Your reckless attempts to legislate away bodily autonomy force Iowans into dangerous and potentially deadly healthcare crises,” she said.
Pete McRoberts with ACLU of Iowa pointed out that Iowa’s Constitution does not grant rights.
“The Constitution is not a document that grants rights to people. Our entire conception of the Constitution is that it is there to prevent government from making decisions about other people. It doesn’t grant rights. It puts a fence around what government can and cannot do. Unlike some other countries where the rights are enumerated and listed and that people can do this, people can do that. The Iowa Constitution, and specifically the Iowa Bill of Rights, tells people in government what they can’t do. Some people here have talked about the equal protection clause. So between Iowa, Article One, Section Six, Article One, Section Nine and due process, it gets a little technical, but it all goes back to the idea that the constitution tells the government where the breaks are. And so for our purposes, I strongly recommend people consider and understand that means that people in government sometimes have to accept things that they don’t agree with that they don’t like the outcome,” he said.
“We believe that decision so personal as to whether or not to raise a child adopted child to start a family. That is a decision that would have been anticipated by the framers of the Constitution and that the court was right. Therefore, we believe that decision is best for the family, for the mother and for her doctor,” he added.
Supporters speak out.
Chuck Hurley, with The FAMiLY Leader, said, “By now we’ve heard all the arguments about abortion, but there is one truth that most Iowans instinctively know that little child in her mother’s womb, she’s a baby. But now, a small handful of unelected judges have pushed on Iowa a precedent that could make killing that baby legal all the way up to the day of birth. And what’s more, make we Iowans pay for it? I don’t remember voting for that.”
“I could happily spend several hours sharing with you why all life is precious from conception through natural death. I would tell you that I myself was unplanned to my young unwed parents, and that one out of every three babies were aborted the year I was luckily born. I tell you about my friend who took a medication abortion and had to pick up pieces of her baby off of her bathroom floor, who will forever deal with the trauma that caused and tell you about the countless women I’ve met who will forever regret the life or the lives they took through abortion,” Leslie Stackis, who supported SJR 2, said.
Elena Stoltenberg from Davenport said she had three abortions as a teenager and regretted it.
“When I got married, and I wanted to have children, I was unable to. Those abortions made me infertile because of the devastation of the abortions that they had in my life. I started researching what child development was and also the horrific abortion procedures. What I found out was not only were those babies, babies, but they were my children. Also, we are maiming and destroying women’s lives. No one should have a constitutional right to kill another human being,” she argued.
Kim Laube with Lutheran Family Ministries said that the Iowa Supreme Court overstepped its bounds in 2018.
“This amendment became necessary when a handful of unelected members of Iowa Supreme Court overstepped their constitutionally outlined mandate and chose in essence to create law rather than to interpret it,” she said. “The court found a fundamental right to abortion where one did not exist. This inappropriate ruling intentionally tied the legislators’ hands, rendering it virtually impossible in the absence of a constitutional amendment to legislatively impose any reasonable restriction on abortion.”
Jim Lamb, also with Lutheran Family Ministries, pointed out there are two lives involved in abortion, not just one.
“There’s a new human life there that is settled embryological science. And it’s an autonomous life tube. Going back to what others have said, it’s an autonomous life. It’s a self-directed entity. From that moment on, that entity that human life is directing what happens, it’s the baby that produces the placenta and umbilical cord, not the mother. The mother is providing just a wonderful place for that baby to live. But that baby is autonomous that baby has his or her own body. It is not the woman’s body or a part of the woman’s body. It is a new and unique human life to be celebrated,” he said.
The FAMiLY Leader’s Daniel Sunne pointed out, quoting Justice Thomas Waterman’s dissenting opinion, that the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018 decision was not tethered to the Iowa Constitution’s text or context.
“The majority has used the living constitution as a way of erecting a strict scrutiny barrier to legislative action without reference to the constitutional text or history. With its decision today, the court has elevated one extreme of this debate to a constitutional level and has made any meaningful compromise on this issue all but impossible. Well, I wonder if the majority is laying groundwork instead, perhaps a stepping stone toward a ruling that Iowa’s Medicaid program must fund abortions,” he quoted.
Michael Demastus, the pastor of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ in Des Moines, said he was disappointed by the tone of some who commented, but commended Pete McRobert’s tone and said he appreciated what Jamey Burch-Elliott said about justice.
“We all have our lens through which we view this world. My worldview is a biblical worldview. And I believe that justice is simply defined by not doing wrong, by helping those who have been wronged, and third and finally trying to right what is actually wrong,” he said.
“With this amendment being put forth, I think what we’re trying to right what’s wrong. For these justices to say that there is a fundamental right to take the lives of innocent women and men through abortion is utterly insane. And for me, I’m driven by Proverbs 24:11, which simply states that we need to rescue those who are being led away to slaughter, and that’s why I am speaking in favor of SJR 2,” Demastus said.
“I think it is a duty that we have to recognize that the life inside the womb is supposed to be, by the way, the womb is supposed to be one of the safest places on planet Earth. And now it’s a very, very precarious state for the unborn child for that little girl for that little boy to be in,” he added.
“I think that what we are doing is saying we don’t want to take away anybody’s perceived right to abortion. But we want to say this, that the Constitution does not say there’s a fundamental right to abortion. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, she still has that choice. But you have denied me the ability to try to defend those that I believe need to be defended. The Supreme Court has taken away the ability for me to attempt to do justice,” Demastus argued.
Maggie Dewitte, with Iowans for Life, said the 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision interfered with the separation of powers.
“They took away the rights of our duly elected legislators to do their job create law. They took away the rights of Iowa citizens to exercise our right to have our voices heard regarding common-sense laws that will safeguard women and families in our state. Yes, this amendment is about abortion, but it is much more than abortion. It’s about the way our branches of government are supposed to work. It’s about one branch usurping their authority and thereby opening the door to late-term abortion even to the point of birth and making Iowans pay for it. This amendment will not end abortion in our state. It will not stop one single abortion from happening. This amendment allows us to fix the mistake, a big mistake that unelected judges made, it should have bipartisan support,” she said.
Legislators weigh in.
At the close of the subcommittee, State Senator Schultz said the amendment rights a wrong.
“There is nothing in this in this resolution that’s going to do anything to restrict an abortion. It addresses a wrong and wrongdoing by a separate branch of government. And I think that needs to be addressed. Regardless, I believe in prior debates on this very issue. We ended up having history lessons, where legislators who helped write the Constitution, their very first course of action was to file a pro-life bill. I can’t hardly imagine that they were playing both sides of that. They knew that the Iowa Constitution had no voice on abortion, and we would like to put it back to that,” he said.
State Senator Bisignano opposed the bill. He said as the legislature further debates the issue, the “more extreme the proposals become.” He complained that no one explained whether exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s life would be addressed.
He said the “protection of life” clause is incomplete.
“What we should add is a guarantee to mothers – housing, healthcare, and food – protection of life, these are living children, that this body never seems to want to address in whole or really in part. I have a real problem with that,” Bisignano stated.
He also said activist justices are judges who “ruled the opposite of what you wished.”
Bisignano also stated that he believes the Constitution does grant rights. “It gives the right to bear arms. It gives the right to free speech. I don’t understand. This one is going to diminish; it’s going to remove, it’s going to block the right of women to choose,” Bisignano argued.
State Senator Guth, who supports the amendment, stated he agreed with ACLU lobbyist who said the Constitution does not grant rights.
“All those rights are given to us by God. The Constitution is designed to protect those rights,” he stated.
Listen to the full subcommittee below: