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Hundreds of people gathered at Cowles Common in downtown Des Moines on May 4, 2022, for the “Abort the State” protest organized by the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. — Britt Fowler/Little Village

The abortion bill for which a special session of the Iowa Legislature was called by Gov. Kim Reynolds was published on Friday. This new bill is almost identical to the 2018 bill that created a near total ban on abortion in Iowa, but never went into effect because a district court issued a preliminary injunction stopping it.

The key difference in the new bill is a provision that makes it take effect as soon as the governor signs it, leaving no time for those who want to challenge it to get an injunction. Even the quickest legal action possible — a temporary restraining order stopping enforcement of the new law, while a request for a preliminary injunction is considered — would likely take days.

“We will do our best to challenge it, we will comply while it is in effect, but we will still provide abortion care in the state of Iowa up to what is legal,” Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said during a news conference on Monday.

Under the bill, it would remain legal to provide abortion services prior to first detection of cardiac activity by an ultrasound probe. That is not a “fetal heartbeat” as proponents of the ban claim, because no heart has formed at the stage in the embryo, which is still weeks away from becoming a fetus. The first fluttering an ultrasound can detect typically happens six weeks into a pregnancy, before most people even realize they are pregnant.

But none of that will stop Republican lawmakers and the governor from calling the ban a fetal heartbeat bill.

“When the legislature takes up this bill tomorrow, we’re going to see familiar bad-faith arguments,” Traxler said. “And that’s partly because a lot of anti-choice politicians fail to understand the basics of pregnancy.”

The new bill contains the same narrowly drawn exemptions to allow for an abortion after six weeks as the 2018 bill. An abortion may be performed if in the doctor’s “reasonable medical judgment” the embryo or fetus has a condition that is “incompatible with life.” A condition that would result in a brief life during which the infant would experience prolonged pain would not be enough to qualify for the exemption.

The “medical emergency” exemption allows for an abortion if the doctor determines it is necessary “to preserve the life of the pregnant woman” or there is “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” The threat of death or major bodily damage will be the only conditions under which most patients can access abortion care after six weeks. And it must be physical damage because the law specifies that mental health considerations cannot constitute a medical emergency.

There are also exemptions for rape and incest, but victims will have to report their pregnancies to “a law enforcement agency or to a public or private health agency” within a fixed time period. Rape victims have 45 days, victims of incest have 140 days.

The penalties for violations of the abortion ban will fall on the doctor. Doctors would face disciplinary action from the state licensing board, and may possibly be found guilty of a Class D felony, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $7,500.

“When other states have passed similar abortion bans, these laws block patients from getting appropriate healthcare,” Traxler said. “These laws often force doctors to choose between providing evidence-based reproductive healthcare or breaking the law.

“Lawyers should not be the ones making healthcare decisions. It should be the patients, in shared decision-making with their doctors.”

It appears that legislative leaders, confident of success because Republicans have substantial majorities in both chambers, are preparing to pass the new ban in a single day. The Senate has set a firm deadline of 11 p.m. for the end of floor debate on the bill, to be immediately followed by a vote. The House, as is usual, has scheduled a public hearing on the bill to begin on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., but it will only last 90 minutes. Speakers will be limited to two minutes each. And despite the fact that polling consistently shows a solid majority of Iowans want abortion to remain legal, the House will have even numbers of proponents and opponents speak, alternating between the two sides.

During Monday’s news conference, Planned Parenthood North Central States President and CEO Ruth Richardson stressed that her organization will provide assistance through its abortion care navigators to those affected by the ban. Francine Thompson, executive director of Emma Goldman Clinic, said her clinic is working hard to make sure patients currently scheduled for procedures will “get appropriate referrals to places where they could be seen.” Both said they are prepared to challenge the law all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Emma Goldman Clinic was founded shortly after Roe v. Wade established the right to abortion in 1973, and is “proud to have been providing abortion care in Iowa City for 50 years,” Thompson said.

“Our priority is to remain a provider of reproductive health care that serves this community for many years to come,” she added.