The state of pro-life legislation is precarious. Despite years of efforts to protect the unborn, the Heartbeat Bill, our highest achievement, has been set aside by a State District Court. The ruling was based on a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision overturning legislation that required a 72 hour pause for women seeking an abortion. In that written opinion, the Chief Justice wrote that our Constitution contains an unspoken, fundamental right to abortion. He couldn’t refer to the language of the Constitution, he instead referred to “ordered liberty,” which seems to mean that judges can read between the lines and infer what the writers of the document would have meant, had they thought to write it. The ruling created a stronger right to abortion in Iowa than the US Constitution. There is a fear it may even require taxpayer funded abortions if the issue were pressed.
Iowans across the state were stunned. Our State Constitution doesn’t refer to abortion in the least. In fact, it is just the opposite. The Constitution opens in Article I, that Iowans have “certain inalienable rights – among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty.” When pro-life supporters plead Constitutional protection of life, the counter argument is that our founders didn’t know about abortion and couldn’t have been aware of the philosophical issues over 150 years later.
One of the heroes of the Life battle, Senator Jake Chapman of Adel, dropped the hammer on that argument while managing SJR 21, the Abortion Neutrality Amendment, through committee. SJR 21 (now SJR 2001) simply states that the Constitution of Iowa does not take a position on abortion. This would place the decision back in the hands of the Legislature, as was intended.
Senator Chapman did his homework. After reviewing Supreme Court Justice Manfield’s dissenting opinion, he went to the Capitol Law Library and searched the archives for any reference to the Life issue. He came to the committee meeting with the original volume of Iowa Acts that provided proof. In 1858 the General Assembly of the Iowa Legislature banned abortion, except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. This occurred just six months after adoption of the Constitution of the State of Iowa in March, 1857! These were the legislators who may have participated in the writing of our Constitution. They certainly at least knew many who worked on the document. To say abortion was unknown to those who lived before 1900 or Roe v. Wade in 1972 is simply wrong.
The amendment process in Iowa is difficult. The Senate and the House must pass the same language. Then we must wait until after the next election and both pass it again. SJR 2001 then can go to a vote of the people of Iowa. It’s important to remember. Passing the amendment doesn’t ban abortion. It only takes the issue from the Iowa Supreme Court of 2018 and puts it back in the hands of the people, through their Legislators.
It should be noted that since 2018, so many Supreme Court justices have been replaced that the current Supreme Court bench cannot be held entirely responsible for the imaginative opinion of a few years back.
Editor’s note: SJR 2001 is on the Iowa Senate’s debate calendar for Tuesday, February 4, 2020.