Iowa Republicans set to kick off special session to push a 6-week abortion ban

Iowa Republicans are preparing to use a special legislative session kicking off Tuesday to advance a ban on most abortions after six weeks. If it is enacted, the measure would make the key presidential state among the strictest in regulating reproductive rights.

The special session will convene just days ahead of a key political summit held by an influential evangelical Christian group that is certain to keep the divisive issue in plain view in the state.

The bill proposed by Iowa Republicans, who control the Legislature, would ban abortions at the sixth week of pregnancy — or when, in some cases, fetal pulses can first be heard via ultrasound.

Reproductive rights advocates have said a six-week ban amounts to a total abortion ban because women don’t even know they are pregnant that early.

As of Monday afternoon, the measure was the only one Republican legislators had released publicly for consideration during the session.

The bill — which includes exceptions for the life of the woman, rape, incest and fetal abnormalities — is nearly identical to a six-week ban that remains permanently blocked following an Iowa Supreme Court split ruling last month. The ruling allowed abortion to remain legal in Iowa until about the 20th week of pregnancy.

If it is enacted, the law is likely to face some of the same legal roadblocks, but the outcome could be different with a full state Supreme Court issuing a decision.

How the Legislature proceeds in advancing abortion restrictions during the special session is sure to have broader ramifications in presidential politics.

Because Iowa will be the first state to hold Republican caucuses for the 2024 presidential race, GOP candidates already barnstorming the state are certain to be asked for their views on newly proposed restrictions. Polling in the state, as well as nationally, finds that a majority of voters support people having the right to abortions — which could make any candidate’s support of a strict abortion ban a political vulnerability among general election voters.

Republicans have often struggled to talk to voters about abortion rights in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturned Roe v. Wade. However, support for harsher abortion restrictions remains popular among conservative evangelical Christians — a key voting bloc in the state’s Republican caucuses.

Later this week, several 2024 Republican candidates are expected to attend a summit held by a prominent Christian conservative group in Des Moines, where abortion restrictions are all but certain to be a top focus. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina are some of the candidates scheduled to attend the conference, called the Family Leadership Summit.

Democratic state legislators and reproductive rights groups, meanwhile, oppose the bill and have organized protests Tuesday outside the State Capitol.

Legislators can still amend the bill during the legislative process before a final vote, which could occur as soon as Tuesday night.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, called for the special legislative session — which she said would be dedicated exclusively to enacting “pro-life legislation” — after the state Supreme Court issued a split decision on a six-week abortion ban she had proposed in 2018.

A spokesperson for Reynolds didn’t respond to questions about whether she supports the newly proposed six-week ban.

The state Supreme Court’s 3-3 ruling last month meant the court failed to reach a majority in deciding whether to overturn a lower court decision blocking Reynolds’ effort to reinstate a 2018 six-week abortion ban.

In her statement announcing the special session, Reynolds referred to that decision as a “lack of action” that “disregards the will of Iowa voters and lawmakers who will not rest until the unborn are protected by law.”

Another six-week ban, however, could once again face obstacles in the state courts.

But because the latest ruling was a narrowly tailored decision based largely on procedural grounds, it remains possible that a full seven-member court could find legal consensus on a new ban.

One of the court's seven justices, Dana Oxley — a Reynolds appointee — recused herself because her former law firm represented an abortion clinic that was a plaintiff in the original case.

The split decision last month featured three justices suggesting they could support a legal standard — known as "rational basis" — that could allow a six-week abortion to stand in the future.

If Oxley were part of the next decision, a clear, legally binding majority on a six-week ban would most likely result.