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In Rare 3-3 Decision, Iowa Supreme Court Declines to Reinstate Law Largely Banning Abortion

FILE - Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her inaugural address, Jan. 13, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
FILE - Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her inaugural address, Jan. 13, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Abortion will remain legal in Iowa after the state's high court declined Friday to reinstate a law that would have largely banned the procedure, rebuffing Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and, for now, keeping the conservative state from joining others with strict abortion limits.

In a rare 3-3 split decision, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a 2019 district court ruling that blocked the law. The latest ruling comes roughly a year after the same body — and the U.S. Supreme Court — determined that women do not have a fundamental constitutional right to abortion.

The blocked law bans abortions once cardiac activity can be detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

Writing for the three justices who denied the state's request to reinstate the law, Justice Thomas Waterman said granting that request would mean bypassing the legislature, changing the standard for how the court reviews laws and then dissolving an injunction.

“In our view it is legislating from the bench to take a statute that was moribund when it was enacted and has been enjoined for four years and then to put it in effect,” Waterman wrote.

The court has seven members, but one justice declined to participate because her former law firm had represented an abortion provider.

While the state’s high court maintains the block on the law, it does not preclude Reynolds and lawmakers from passing a new law that looks the same. The decision Friday was largely procedural — the 2022 appeal to the 2019 ruling was too late.

Abortions remain legal in Iowa up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Most Republican-led states have severely curtailed access to abortion in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court stripped women's constitutional right to abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade and handing authority over the issue to states.

Reynolds signed the 2018 law despite state and federal court decisions at the time, including Roe, affirming a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Planned Parenthood sued and a state judge blocked the law the following year. Reynolds did not appeal the decision at the time.

In a separate case, the Iowa Supreme Court decided last year to reverse an opinion saying the state’s constitution affirms a fundamental right to abortion. Roe was overturned a week later, and Reynolds sought to dissolve the 2019 decision.

A state judge ruled last year that she had no authority to do so, and Reynolds appealed to the state's Supreme Court, which is now far more conservative than when the law was first passed. Reynolds appointed five of the court’s seven members.

Although called a “fetal heartbeat” law, the measure does not easily translate to medical science. At the point where advanced technology can detect the first visual flutter, the embryo isn’t yet a fetus and does not have a heart. An embryo is termed a fetus eight weeks after fertilization.

The Iowa law contains exceptions for medical emergencies, including threats to the mother’s life, rape, incest and fetal abnormality.