Pro-lifers are perhaps more accustomed to disappointment than any other reliably Republican constituency. For years, the needle has stayed static on abortion regardless of which side holds power – the Bush administration managed no more significant limitations on abortion than did Obama.
Given the inability of federal legislators to move the ball on abortion, many pro-life activists have turned their attention to the states, where increasingly red legislatures present the opportunity to drastically limit abortions and legally recognize the personhood of the preborn.
Iowa is one example of a purple state whose legislature turned deep red in 2016, and the state has received national attention for its aggressive legislative agenda, which contains a number of pro-life initiatives including the holy grail of pro-life bills, life at conception. SF-253 would legally recognize the biological reality that life begins at conception, and would afford legal protection to the unborn. The bill makes no exceptions for rape or incest – corner cases that abortion defenders rally around – but does include carefully crafted language that excludes contraceptive bans or prosecution of an abortive mother.
But the most revolutionary aspect of Iowa’s life at conception (LaC) bill is this: it includes a clause that removes it from Iowa’s appellate jurisdiction, making it invulnerable to legal challenge.
The concept of limiting the court’s jurisdiction isn’t new – it was recently used to protect portions of the Affordable Care Act from judicial review – but conservatives have been slow to adopt the strategy, fearing the Democratic reciprocation.
The bill serves as a model for future pro-life legislation nationwide, and should it pass, other states would be encouraged to mimic the concept. Republicans hold majorities in both of Iowa’s legislative chambers and have a Republican governor looking to leave a legacy behind as he prepares to hand off his duties in exchange for a new ambassadorship to China. Iowa’s Republican platform is staunchly pro-life, and nearly every member of the GOP majority ran on a pro-life platform, so one would expect the bill to sail through without incident, right?
After passing out of subcommittee to great fanfare, the bill is now stuck in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, where it will die for lack of votes to advance, unless it is reassigned to a more friendly committee by the Senate President, Jack Whitver.
Whitver, a former Iowa State University star receiver, said his caucus was “making life a priority,” and indeed his majority succeeded in removing state funding from abortion providers in Iowa just a few weeks earlier, but now he finds himself caught between Iowa’s passionate pro-life grassroots activists and GOP senators squeamish about what they consider to be too extreme a measure.
Here are the key players in what is becoming a legislative microcosm of the crossroads pro-life activists find themselves at in relation to the GOP.
- Sen. Charles Schneider (R – West Des Moines) – Schneider, a member of the judiciary committee who cosponsored SF-2 removing funding from abortion providers, has reportedly declined to support the life at conception bill, citing a worry that it might be overturned in court, as well as concern regarding unintended legal consequences of the language.
- Sen. Dan Dawson (R – Council Bluffs) – One of the biggest upsets of 2016 saw Dawson take out longtime Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and hand the the Senate majority – and full control of the state – to the GOP. He reportedly objects to the lack of a rape/incest exception to the bill.
- Sen. Tom Shipley (R-Nodaway) – Shipley has also noted concerns about exceptions, and has been less vocal in his support for pro-life initiatives overall, though he did vote to move SF-2 out of committee earlier this year.
- Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale) – Zaun, a staunch conservative and supporter of life at conception, finds himself faced with a choice of bringing the bill up for a vote – knowing it will fail – or letting it die in committee and saving his Republican colleagues from having to go on the record with their opposition. Currently the bill is scheduled for discussion, but Zaun has insisted that he will not call up a bill that doesn’t have sufficient support for passage.
- Sen. Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny) – Senate President Whitver has worked with pro-life leaders to advance life at conception, initially placing it in the judiciary committee at the request of groups like The Family Leader and Personhood Iowa, but now, faced with a shortfall of committee votes, he has the power to leave the bill in its current committee and risk its defeat, or change committee assignments to get it to the floor – a breach of protocol that is typically frowned upon but was recently used to push through an increase in the Iowa fuel tax.
According to sources in the capitol, Whitver has already received over 3,000 emails from Iowa pro-lifers asking him to move the bill through, and Republican officials statewide are getting tremendous pressure by phone, email, and social media. Even the state Republican party leadership has been contacted en masse as grassroots activists look for ways to influence the legislators to follow the state party platform, whose first plank reads, “We move the Iowa Republican Party aggressively support a Life Begins at Conception Bill without exceptions.”
Pro-life activists and legislators across the nation should pay very careful attention to what happens in Iowa in the next 24 hours – it could be the first indicator of whether the GOP plans to stand with pro-lifers, or whether they will continue to settle for half-measures and excuses.
UPDATE: As of Thursday afternoon, SF-253, the Life at Conception Act, has been removed from the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is dead. Sen. Zaun chose not to bring the bill up for a vote, but sources at the capitol confirm that Sens. Dawson and Shipley remained nay votes, refusing to vote for passage even after a rape/incest exception amendment was offered. Some reports indicate that Sen. Schneider was ready to flip his vote to yea, but was not given the opportunity since it was removed from the agenda.