Iowa Supreme Court Strikes Down 72-Hour Abortion Waiting Period

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the ACLU won their suit to overturn unconstitutional restrictions on abortion rights in the state.
Photo by  Luca Pierro via Stocksy.

The Iowa Supreme Court has deemed a state law requiring women to wait 72 hours before obtaining an abortion unconstitutional, in a major victory for reproductive rights advocates.

The legislation was signed into law by former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad last year, making Iowa home to some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the American Civil Liberties Union responded with a suit against the state in February, arguing that the law forced medically unnecessary requirements on women seeking abortion and violated their rights to due process and equal protections under the Iowa Constitution.


On Friday, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady sided with both advocacy groups, ruling that the 72-hour waiting period was a violation of the state constitution.

"The state has a legitimate interest in informing women about abortion, but the means used under the statute enacted does not meaningfully serve that objective," Cady wrote in his decision. "Because our constitution requires more, we reverse the decision of the district court."

Waiting periods have long been a favorite tactic of conservative lawmakers looking to chip away at abortion access in their states. As it stands, 27 states have some kind of waiting period in place, according to Guttmacher Institute, requiring patients to wait anywhere between 24 and 72 hours between counseling and the abortion itself. Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah—but not longer Iowa—all have the most severe waiting periods on the books.

As with most abortion restrictions, poor women and women living in rural areas are hit hardest by their state's waiting periods. A 48- or 72-hour waiting period in particular can mean taking multiple days off of work, which can be devastating for those who depend on hourly wages to pay bills. And in states like large states like Texas, where vast swaths of the state remain hours from the nearest abortion clinic, or Mississippi, where there's only one remaining clinic, obtaining an abortion can turn into a multi-day excursion requiring transportation, lodging and hundreds of dollars.


"It's just drags it out," a patient in Louisiana told Broadly in 2016, during her second visit to an abortion clinic. "I'm not gonna change my mind. It seems like it's something that all could have been done in one day­: one appointment, one day. And it would have saved me a lot of money."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Friday's Iowa Supreme Court decision arrives amid great anxiety about the US Supreme Court, and how an open seat on the bench left behind by Justice Anthony Kennedy could lead to a repeal of Roe v. Wade. The ruling is a bright spot for the reproductive rights advocates gearing up for battle to protect abortion rights on a national level.

“I am grateful that the Supreme Court of Iowa recognized that requiring patients to make two visits to receive one very safe medical procedure would have been dangerously burdensome and harmed my patients, particularly those who already face the most barriers accessing health care: low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women," Dr. Jill Meadows, a Physicians for Reproductive Health board member and co-plaintiff in the case, said in a statement.

"This restriction would not have protected my patients," she added, "it would only have put their health in jeopardy."