Iowa’s ‘Six-Week’ Abortion Ban Is Blocked For Now. But Remember: ‘Six Weeks’ Is Actually Two

Update Monday, July 17, 2023, at 3:15 p.m. PT: Just days after the law took effect, Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin blocked Iowa’s House File 732, which banned most abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy.

The ruling is a response to a challenge by reproductive and legal rights groups Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the Emma Goldman Clinic and the ACLU of Iowa, who argued the ban was not constitutional under Iowa law.

“The current state of the law in Iowa remains, at least for the time being, that some level of constitutional protection applies to women seeking abortion,” Seidlin wrote in his order.

For now, abortion is legal in the state up to 22 weeks.

Abortion rights supporters march at Indiana University in Bloomington, against Texas’ S.B. 8, a six-week abortion ban that took effect in September 2021 and was, at the time, the most restrictive abortion ban in history. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Late Tuesday night, Iowa’s state legislature voted to ban most abortions after around six weeks of pregnancy. The bill, House File 732, passed during a special session with exclusively Republican support. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R)—who called for the rare one-day special session solely to hold a vote on the restrictions—will sign the bill on Friday, and it will take immediate effect. Before the law, abortions in the state were allowed up to 20 weeks.

Once passed, there will be two states—Iowa and Georgia—that ban abortion after around six weeks since a person’s last menstrual period. Total bans are in effect in 14 additional states: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

These photos show pregnancy tissue extracted at five to nine weeks of pregnancy, rinsed of blood and menstrual lining. The images show the tissue in a petri dish next to a ruler to indicate its size. (MYA Network)

Laws that restrict abortion in this way “rely on ‘scientific’ claims that have very little grounding in actual science,” and fly in the face of medical expertise. After all, most women don’t even know they’re pregnant when only six weeks along, as Jennifer Weiss-Wolf wrote in Ms.:

“A ‘six-week ban’ on abortion is emphatically not the same as a six-week window to obtain one. …

“A person is four weeks pregnant on the first day of a missed period, thereby allowing a mere two weeks to obtain an abortion—a sliver of a window even for the most resourced among us. … And for those who live in places where abortion and other health care services are few and far between—or are subject to hurdles imposed by legislatures like mandatory waiting times, or just the economic and logistical challenges of daily life—that two-week timeframe is a legally-proscribed impossibility.”

The law’s language hinges on “the detection of a fetal heartbeat,” generally thought to be around the six-week gestation mark. But in reality, at this time, “there is no heart,” said Donna Howard—a registered nurse and long-time state legislator in Texas, the first state in U.S. history to see a six-week ban take effect, now almost two years ago.

“There is cardiac tissue with electrical activity that will eventually be developing into a heart, but there’s no pumping heart,” Howard continued. “That is not happening. What’s happening is there is electrical activity that’s being picked up by a monitor and made into a whooshing sound by that monitor. It is not a heartbeat—but that’s not of interest to [Republicans].” 

Even if an Iowan realizes she is pregnant before the six-week mark, she would need enough time for two different in-person trips to the facility itself, separated by a minimum 24-hour waiting period.

Public opinion also shows wide opposition to the law: A poll this year showed 61 percent of Iowans, and 70 percent of women in Iowa, believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Support for abortion is particular high—72 percent—among Iowans under the age of 35.

“We are appalled and disappointed that the Iowa legislature and the governor are playing doctor by inserting themselves into exam rooms where they don’t belong,” said Francine Thompson, executive director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We will remain committed to and will not stop our fight to restore Iowans’ fundamental right to reproductive freedom. We deserve better as a state, and our future generations deserve better.”

Medication abortion is legal, safe and available in all 50 states. The organization Plan C has a comprehensive guide to finding abortion pills on their website, which is continually updated and has all the latest information on where to find abortion pills from anywhere in the U.S. 

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.