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Iowans themselves could decide the state’s abortion status

5/10/2022

Millions of Americans are now focused on the issue of abortion, after someone leaked a first draft of the U.S. Supreme Court’s apparent decision to repeal the nation’s guarantee of a woman’s right to choose. The court is expected to issue its official ruling in June. If the leaked draft is an accurate preview, then each state will get to make its own decision.

But only a few Americans might get to vote on it themselves. Like Iowans.

In most states the decision on a right to abortion will be made solely by the legislatures of those states. In Iowa, though, the question will take a different path.

In 2018 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the Iowa Constitution guarantees a woman the right to make her own decision on abortion. So last year the Republican majority in the Iowa Legislature initiated an attempt to remove that guarantee through a state constitutional amendment. The GOP plan, if successful, would invalidate the court’s finding. Here’s how:

To amend the Iowa Constitution, a proposed amendment must be approved in exactly the same form by two successive sessions of the Iowa Legislature. Last year’s legislative action was the first step. The new two-year session of the Legislature begins next January, and if Republicans continue their majorities there as expected, the proposal is likely to be approved once more. 

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It will then go to Iowa voters in a required referendum. That’s when Iowans can decide whether the constitutional right to an abortion will continue in the state.

Public opinion polls in Iowa show a strong preference for leaving it up to the woman to make that decision. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll of last September found 57 percent of Iowans of the opinion that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 38 percent said it should be illegal in most or all cases. That’s a stronger preference than the poll found back in March 2020, when the numbers were 49 percent in favor of legality and 45 percent against it.

Those numbers would suggest that the proposed amendment will fail. But that depends on who turns out to vote in the referendum. If those who want to ban abortion make a greater effort to get to the polls than those who want it to continue to be legal, they could succeed. Abortion in Iowa would then be against the law.

A breakdown by categories in last September’s Iowa Poll is revealing. On the question of whether abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 88 percent of Democrats said yes, 67 percent of independents did the same, but only 30 percent of Republicans agreed. By gender, 63 percent of women said yes, but only 49 percent of men.

Suburban residents were 67 percent in favor of the legality of abortion in most or all cases. Urban voters came in almost the same way, at 66 percent. Only 46 percent of rural residents were in favor. 

The breakdown by religious preference was striking. Those polled who had no religious affiliation were 80 percent in favor of abortion legality. Catholics were 52 percent in favor, Protestants 49 percent, and evangelical Christians 31 percent.

There are other paths that could change the situation in Iowa, of course. The Iowa Supreme Court now is different from what it was in 2018. Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has appointed four of the seven current members of the court, and she and former Republican Governor Terry Branstad together account for six of the seven. Both Reynolds and Branstad describe themselves as pro-life.

If enough of their Supreme Court appointees agree with that position, the 2018 decision could be altered or overturned by the present court.

On the other hand, if enough Iowans fear the legislature’s attempt to roll back the 2018 decision through a constitutional amendment, they could cast their votes for pro-choice legislative candidates in this November’s general election. If enough voters did so, the required second legislative approval for the proposed amendment could be voted down in the coming legislative session.

In any event, if the U.S. Supreme Court does indeed reverse Roe v. Wade and turn the abortion question over to the states, Iowa voters themselves would have the power to make that decision for Iowa, assuming the 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision stands. 

Rarely do voters themselves get to decide such a momentous issue.

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