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Iowa High Court Reverses Its Own 2018 Ruling Recognizing Right to Abortion

Four justices on the court have been appointed by anti-abortion Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds over the past five years.

Protesters in support of abortion rights gather in Dayton, Ohio, on May 14, 2022.

The Iowa state Supreme Court has overruled a 2018 decision it previously made that deemed abortion rights protected under the state constitution.

The reason for the reversal, which was announced on Friday, appears to only have happened because four justices, nominated by anti-abortion Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), were placed on the state’s highest bench over the past five years. Six of the seven justices overall were appointed by Republicans.

The ruling does not make abortion illegal in Iowa, as federal standards and other laws in the state remain in place. But it does remove the previously held recognition from the court that abortion is a fundamental right under the state constitution.

The ruling will likely allow for Republican lawmakers in Iowa to have the ability to place greater restrictions on the procedure in the near future, should the federal Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade later this summer.

“We don’t know yet what [Republicans will] propose, but previously-blocked laws [by state courts] have included a 72-hour waiting period and a ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill,” Des Moines Register politics reporter Katie Akin observed.

The 5-2 ruling examined a case involving a 24-hour waiting period to have an abortion, a law that Republicans passed in 2020. A lower court deemed that restriction unconstitutional. In reversing its 2018 ruling, the state Supreme Court sends the case back to the lower court to reconsider, based on the new precedent that says the state constitution doesn’t recognize and protect abortion rights.

Justice Edward Mansfield, writing the opinion for the court, said he and his like-minded colleagues “[rejected] the proposition that there is a fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa’s Constitution subjecting abortion regulation to strict scrutiny.” However, Mansfield said that the court would not produce any new guidelines for the time being, noting that the federal Supreme Court was set to rule on the issue itself.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen, who was also appointed by Gov. Reynolds, dissented from the ruling, stating that the majority overturned the court’s previous precedent at the first opportunity it had. The court was doing so too quickly, ignoring the standard of stare decisis — the idea of respecting previous precedents established by courts.

“Out of respect for stare decisis, I cannot join the majority’s decision to overrule” the previous precedent, Christensen wrote in her opinion.

The chief justice also recognized that the only reason for the reversal of the previous ruling was a change in its ideology. The ruling on Friday would make people question the legitimacy of the court, she added.

“This rather sudden change in a significant portion of our court’s composition is exactly the sort of situation that challenges so many of the values that stare decisis promotes concerning stability in the law, judicial restraint, the public’s faith in the judiciary, and the legitimacy of judicial review,” Christensen said.

“This is not to say that we may never overrule precedent that is clearly incorrect because we are worried about the public’s perception of our decision in relation to the change in our court’s makeup. … But we must only use this power when there is a ‘special justification’ over and above the belief ‘that the precedent was wrongly decided,’” Christensen wrote, quoting previous rulings that established how courts were meant to treat matters relating to stare decisis.

Critics blasted the court’s decision to overturn a precedent and the manner in which it was done.

“This decision was made possible by Gov. Kim Reynolds’ addition of Republican justices to the court — nothing more, nothing less,” wrote Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern.

“Today’s ruling is a step backwards for Iowa,” Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said. “Like a large majority of Iowans, I believe in reproductive freedom. I will continue to fight like hell to ensure every family has access to safe, legal abortion.”