Iowa's 6-week abortion ban will 'eliminate almost all abortion care' in the state

More than a dozen states now have what medical experts have called "an almost 100% abortion ban."

Pro-abortion-rights protesters holding signs at a rally.
Pro-abortion-rights protesters at a rally in June of last year in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall, File/AP)

Iowa became the latest state to enact a restrictive six-week abortion ban in the wave of GOP-backed laws that have gone into place in the wake of last year’s decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The bill passed late Tuesday with only Republican support after a 14-hour special session called by Gov. Kim Reynolds to get the ban passed. Reynolds signed the legislation on Friday, at which point it went into effect immediately, although it is already facing legal challenges. Abortions in the state were previously allowed up to 20 weeks.

Currently 16 states have banned abortion at six weeks or less. Republicans in South Carolina enacted a six-week ban of their own in May, but it has been temporarily suspended as the state Supreme Court considers whether it’s legal. A six-week ban passed in Ohio is also temporarily stayed as the GOP battles a ballot measure that would put protections for reproductive rights into the state’s constitution.

For those living in states with the bans, six weeks could pass before many even realize they’re pregnant. Yahoo News spoke to Drs. Emily Boevers and Francesca Turner, who are both ob-gyn specialists in Iowa, about what the laws mean for health care. Some responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How long does it take to determine if someone is pregnant? How big is the embryo at that point?

Boevers: The detection of the pregnancy hormone takes almost two weeks after the conception of the pregnancy has occurred. So first and foremost, you’ve lost some time with your over-the-counter pregnancy tests in early pregnancy, because it will not register until that blood supply is established to show the pregnancy hormone in the mother’s system.

In the fifth to sixth week of pregnancy on a transvaginal ultrasound, you can start to see what we call a fetal pole, which looks like a grain of rice. When you start to observe it around six weeks, it’s about a centimeter or less. And it’s difficult to measure because it is so small. You have to have special training to measure the fetal pole.

Around the sixth week to the seventh week is when you can start to observe a flicker of tissue on that fetal pole where the embryonic heart has started to develop.

So, at six weeks, does an embryo have a fully formed heart?

Boevers: Absolutely not. The embryonic heart is a tube structure that has an impulse to start flickering because eventually, if it is developed, it serves that purpose. But at that point in the embryo, it’s not pumping blood, and it is not functional in the way that we think of cardiac function in an adult.

Lawmakers often refer to six-week abortion bans as “fetal heartbeat” laws. Is that a misleading name?

Turner: I would say it’s misleading. To physicians, a fetus starts at nine weeks. Prior to that, it’s called an embryo. But when [lawmakers] talk about fetal heartbeat at six weeks, it just doesn’t make sense because that is not what they’re called. In medicine we have very specific words to communicate these very specific things to each other. And when we use the wrong words, it’s confusing, and quite frankly, it’s just dangerous. Part of why these bills are so dangerous is because they’re so unclear.

State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst speaks to protesters rallying at the Iowa Capitol rotunda.
State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst speaks to protesters rallying at the Iowa Capitol rotunda in opposition to the new six-week abortion ban introduced by Republican lawmakers in a special session on Tuesday. (Hannah Fingerhut/AP)

Realistically, is six weeks enough time for someone to decide if they need an abortion?

Boevers: Many women will not even recognize a pregnancy at that stage. People don’t generally start having morning sickness or things like that until after that time. Depending on ovulation and implantation, they may or may not have a positive pregnancy test yet, two to three days after the start of their missed period. But if they call and try to get care, it will absolutely take at least a week to establish care at one of the very few abortion clinics in Iowa, which require them to make two appointments and not just one because of the 24-hour waiting period in Iowa.

A six-week abortion ban is really, effectively, an almost 100% abortion ban. This will eliminate almost all abortion care in Iowa.

Turner: Having these arbitrary and nonmedical cutoffs for abortion bans is cruel and harmful. They push women into making rash decisions that they and their family or support group or faith leader might need to discuss in further detail. And you can’t make these life-altering decisions in such a small time.

Pregnancy is too complicated to legislate.

Do you plan to change the way you treat pregnant patients in response to Iowa’s new law?

Boevers: I talked with our clinic personnel about changing our triage protocol for women who call in with a positive pregnancy test, because usually we wouldn’t see these patients until at least eight weeks as a way to kind of try to be inclusive to people who maybe have additional health needs that are not addressed later on in pregnancy.