Bill would let women sue doctors who perform their abortions

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Iowa lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow a woman who gets an abortion to sue the doctor who performed the procedure if she experiences emotional distress later.

If approved, it would be the first law of its kind in the U.S.

The proposal, which was endorsed Tuesday by a GOP-led three-member panel of lawmakers, would permit the woman to file a lawsuit at any point in her life, something that goes against typical statute of limitation rules. It could also make the state vulnerable to costly court challenges.

"What we're asking for is that individuals, doctors and clinics that make money off of women by giving them abortions are simply held accountable," said Sen. Mark Chelgren, the Republican who introduced the bill. "That's all this does. It protects women from people who would normally be trying to sell them something in a time when they are under the most stress that is kind of imaginable."

The bill goes next to another committee. It's unclear how much GOP support the idea has in the Iowa Legislature, though the state's incoming Republican governor did not dismiss it.

Regardless of whether the proposal advances to the full Legislature, it highlights how much abortion will dominate Iowa politics this year. The governor has already proposed a plan to end state funding for Planned Parenthood by passing up millions of federal Medicaid dollars. Instead, he would tap into a fund that currently helps at-risk youth stay out of the welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Meanwhile, dozens of newly filed bills related to education, labor and taxes are still waiting to be scheduled for discussion. And lawmakers have yet to formally consider any legislation to plug a roughly $110 million shortfall in Iowa's current budget.

Erin Davison-Rippey, a representative for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said the bill would encourage similar action in other Republican-majority statehouses despite a "Pandora's box" of legal issues.

"It shows that people who are in control are willing to allow incredibly extreme bills to advance in this new leadership," she said. "All Iowans should be concerned about that."

Chelgren drafted a similar measure that was briefly discussed in 2013 and 2014. It was stopped in large part by Democrats who controlled the state Senate. After the November election, Republicans took control of both chambers and the governor's office. Other abortion-restriction bills are expected.

If approved, Chelgren's proposal would be the first such law in the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. The Guttmacher Institute did note a handful of states have laws on legal action related to abortion, but they vary and many are specific to counseling provisions.

However, the measure could be challenged immediately on the grounds that it violates the Constitution, according to Mark Kende of the Constitutional Law Center at Drake University, a private school in Des Moines.

Opponents could argue it would create an undue burden on women by reducing opportunities for them to access a legal medical procedure if doctors avoid offering abortions because of the constant threat of legal action.

"When you look at it more carefully, it's a threat to the woman because it creates deterrents for doctors to do this," he said.

Chelgren said federal law requires the state to protect a woman's mental health.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who will succeed Gov. Terry Branstad, who has been nominated to be ambassador to China, did not offer support for the bill at a news conference Tuesday. But she also did not dismiss it. Reynolds said she would wait to see the proposal in its final form.

Daniel Zeno, a legislative liaison for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the measure unfairly singles out abortion among many medical procedures.

"The bill's intent is clear: To demonize abortion providers, set up an adversarial relationship between provider and patient, shame women and block access to reproductive health care," he said in a statement.