In Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds (Planned Parenthood IV), the Supreme Court of Iowa deadlocked 3-3 on a motion to revive Iowa Code chapter 146C’s “fetal heartbeat” abortion law, which has been permanently enjoined from enforcement since 2019. Because the court was unable to reach a majority, the district court’s permanent injunction remains in place, though every justice that participated either authored or joined a nonprecedential opinion.
This case is the continuation of a series of challenges by Planned Parenthood to various Iowa state abortion provisions that began in 2015. In 2018, before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Iowa legislature passed a law known as the “fetal heartbeat bill” to prohibit most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. When Planned Parenthood sued, a state district court ruled the law was unconstitutional under the “undue burden” standard and entered a permanent injunction blocking its enforcement. The state did not appeal or challenge the injunction at the time. Later, after the Iowa Supreme Court held there is no “fundamental right to an abortion in Iowa’s Constitution subjecting abortion to strict scrutiny,” and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. overruling Roe v. Wade, the state of Iowa filed a motion with the district court seeking to dissolve the permanent injunction because those cases “constitute a substantial change in the law that justifies the dissolution of the existing permanent injunction because no right to an abortion exists under Iowa’s Constitution or the federal constitution.”
The district court held there was no basis to dissolve the permanent injunction for three reasons. First, unlike in federal law, Iowa rules of civil procedure provide no avenue to “modify or vacate a permanent injunction more than one year after judgment based on a change in law.” Second, the court did not have “inherent authority” to modify or vacate the injunction because there was no “compelling circumstance” at play that “would allow [the court] to find an exception to a jurisdictional limitation.” Third, the court did not consider either Planned Parenthood III or Dobbs to be a substantial change in the law because Planned Parenthood III left the undue burden standard in place under Iowa law, and the original injunction was decided under the undue burden standard. While Dobbs may have overruled the undue burden standard under federal law, the district court noted that the Iowa Supreme Court has not overruled it under the Iowa Constitution, and therefore, the court held, no substantial change in the law had occurred. As such, the district court left its permanent injunction in place barring enforcement of the fetal heartbeat bill.
The state appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Justice Dana Oxley did not participate, and the remainder of the court was split evenly 3-3. As such, under Iowa Code § 602.4107, the court issued an order affirming the district court. Several justices issued nonprecedential opinions.
Justice Thomas Waterman, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Edward Mansfield, explained that he would have affirmed the district court. He explained that the three justices would have exercised their discretion to deny the state’s writ of certiorari because this case presented a poor vehicle to consider the viability of the undue burden standard for several reasons. First, because the injunction was entered four years earlier and not appealed, granting review now would “undermine the finality of judgments.” Second, because the statute had “had no chance of taking effect” when it was originally enacted in 2018, it was effectively “a hypothetical law.” The current legislature, he said, may approach the issue differently. Third, the current legislature had not yet taken the necessary steps to get a constitutional amendment “stating that there is no constitutional right to abortion” onto the ballot in 2024. Fourth, during the most recent Iowa legislative session, the general assembly did not pass a new law to reenact the fetal heartbeat law, even though the district court had already ruled against vacating the permanent injunction. Fifth, an amicus brief filed by members of the Iowa legislature in support of overturning the injunction and reinstating the fetal heartbeat law was not signed by a majority of legislators, indicating that there is no current legislative majority in support of a fetal heartbeat bill. Finally, a member of the court is recused from this specific case, and the “incredibly consequential constitutional issues relating to abortion should understandably be decided by a full court if at all possible.”
Next, Justice Waterman explained that even if the writ had been granted, he and the other two justices joining his opinion would have annulled the writ because the district court correctly held that the undue burden standard still applied. He noted that Planned Parenthood III “left the undue burden standard in place,” and that “section 146C [the fetal heartbeat bill] is unconstitutional under that standard.”
Finally, Justice Waterman noted that even if a challenge to the undue burden standard comes to the court in a proper vehicle, Dobbs is no guarantee that the undue burden standard will be overturned, because federal precedent guides, but does not govern, interpretation of the Iowa Constitution.
Justice Christopher McDonald also wrote separately, joined by Justices Matthew McDermott and David May, to explain why he would have granted certiorari, reversed, and remanded with instructions for the district court to dissolve the permanent injunction.
First, Justice McDonald discussed the interplay between the Iowa Constitution, separation of powers, and tiers of review. He noted that “[w]hile the general assembly has substantial power to pass laws that promote the health, safety, welfare, and morals of persons in this state, its power is not unlimited,” but is subject to the state and federal constitutions. He further explained that, under Iowa law, there is a “tiered system of review” for constitutional claims: statutes affecting a fundamental right or classifying individuals on the basis of race, alienage, or national origin are subject to strict scrutiny review. A fundamental right “must be deeply rooted in our history and tradition and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” But if the constitutional claim does not involve a fundamental right or a suspect classification, generally, “the court applies rational basis review.” Finally, intermediate scrutiny applies to “statutes classifying on the basis of gender or illegitimacy.”
Second, after recounting the history of the litigation and summarizing Dobbs, Justice McDonald pushed back against Justice Waterman’s arguments that certiorari should have been denied. He stated that the fetal heartbeat law “is not a ‘hypothetical law.’ It is an actual law,” and that it does not need to be reenacted to be subject to judicial review. He further explained that “a court’s judgment that a law is unconstitutional does not repeal the law or cause the law to cease to exist”; rather, such a law “remains part of the Iowa Code.” Furthermore, it is “‘well settled’ law” that a statute “becomes operative without reenactment” when a case adjudging that statute unconstitutional is later overruled.
Third, Justice McDonald disagreed with the district court’s ruling that it lacked authority to dissolve a permanent injunction. Because an injunction is equitable relief, he would have held “that courts have inherent authority to modify or dissolve a permanent injunction based on changes in fact or law without regard to the passage of time.”
Fourth, Justice McDonald would have held that there had been a substantial change in law warranting relief. He argued that earlier Iowa cases applying the undue burden standard did so “based on the State’s concession of coextensivity between the Federal and State constitution,” not because the Iowa Constitution has an independent right to terminate a pregnancy. And because the state previously admitted the Iowa constitution was coextensive with the federal constitution, that should mean that the reasoning of Dobbs applies and rational basis review is appropriate, not the undue burden standard. He argued the fetal heartbeat law would pass rational basis review, and therefore that the court should vacate its permanent injunction.
For all the above reasons, Justice McDonald would have granted the state’s petition for writ of certiorari and sustained the writ.
Justice Matthew McDermott also wrote separately, joined by Justices McDonald and May, to respond to Justice Waterman’s argument that the state’s petition for certiorari should not have been granted. He criticized Justice Waterman’s “speculation about what the legislative and executive branches were thinking when they enacted the heartbeat law” and refuted his contention that the legislature should be required to pass the fetal heartbeat law a second time for it to be enacted.
Soon after this decision was released, the Iowa legislature convened in a special session and passed a new abortion bill which, just like the fetal heartbeat bill at issue in this case, prohibits most abortions after cardiac activity is detected. The bill was signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds days later.
 Abigail Smith, State Court Docket Watch: Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds, State Court Docket Watch (September, 2022), available at https://fedsoc.org/commentary/publications/state-court-docket-watch-planned-parenthood-of-the-heartland-v-reynolds.
 Iowa Code ch. 146C (2019).
 Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds, No. EQCE083074, 2022 WL 17885890, at *1-2 (Iowa Dist. Dec. 12, 2022) (D. Ct. Op.).
 Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds, 975 N.W.2d 710, 715 (Iowa 2022) (Planned Parenthood III).
 D. Ct. Op. at *2.
 Id. at *3.
 Id. at *6.
 Id. at *6-7.
 Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds, No. 22-2036, 2023 WL 4635932 (Iowa June 16, 2023).
 Id. (Waterman, J., writing separately).
 Id. at *4.
 Id. After this order issued, a majority of the general assembly did vote in favor of a newly authorized fetal heartbeat bill.
 Id. at *5.
 Id. at *7-8.
 Id. at *10 (McDonald, J., writing separately).
 Id. at *11.
 Id. (citations omitted).
 Id. at *12.
 Id. (citation omitted).
 Id. at *14.
 Id. (citation omitted).
 Id. at *17.
 Id. at *19.
 Id. at *21.
 Id. at *24 (McDermott, J., writing separately).
 Mary Kekatos and Kendall Ross, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs new 6-week abortion ban into law, ABC News, July 14, 2023, available at https://abcnews.go.com/US/iowa-gov-kim-reynolds-signs-new-6-week/story?id=101082504.
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