Pulse Life Advocates and Planned Parenthood Directors

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 14, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, executive director of Pulse Life Advocates, Maggie DeWitte, and director of public affairs in Iowa for Planned Parenthood North Central States, Mazie Stilwell, discuss abortion in Iowa and the state legislature’s special session.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Amanda Rooker, chief political reporter for KCCI-TV in Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



The Iowa legislature passed a new six-week abortion ban this week during a special session. We'll talk with pro-life and pro-choice advocates about the law's impact and what's next on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 14th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: This past Tuesday, the Iowa legislature convened in special session and passed what supporters call a fetal heartbeat bill. Our guests today were involved in both sides of that debate. But a note for our viewers, we are taping this conversation on Thursday. That, of course, is a day before Governor Reynolds is scheduled to sign the bill into law and there is a court hearing scheduled to hear the request of abortion providers in Iowa and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa request that a judge issue a temporary injunction against the law. We may remind you of that during our conversation if something comes up regarding those two issues. Our guests today are Maggie DeWitte, she is with Pulse Life Advocates. It used to be known as Iowans for Life. And Mazie Stilwell is with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa. Welcome to you both. Thank you for being here on this Thursday.

DeWitte: Thank you.

Stilwell: Thanks for having us.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation are Amanda Rooker, she is the Chief Political Reporter for KCCI television and Erin Murphy, he is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So, Maggie and Mazie, you both were involved in discussing this proposal with legislators before it was debated this week. We wanted to ask you each, and Maggie DeWitte we'll start with you. What was your advice to lawmakers who feel the same as you on this issue going into that debate?

DeWitte: Well, certainly I was involved when we passed the heartbeat bill in 2018. And we never were able to see that enforced. And so, here we were again after we got the Iowa Supreme Court ruling that stated they would not move forward with lifting the injunction. So, my hope was that they would move quickly because we have been waiting for over five years. And so, I was very grateful that Governor Reynolds and our legislature decided to have that special session so we could move forward in protecting Iowans' lives.

Murphy: And knowing too the likely legal challenge again, was that another reason to get the process moving sooner than later?

DeWitte: Absolutely. We knew there would be legal challenges to come forward. So, we wanted to get going as soon as possible.

Murphy: Mazie, what were your conversations like with democrats ahead of this debate?

Stilwell: Our conversations centered around the fact that Iowans need to be heard on this issue. And so, our ask was simply that elected officials in this state, regardless of political party, represent the voices of those constituents reaching out to them and letting them know that they are, that they value their freedom in this space and they value the ability to make their own personal medical decisions. And so, really regardless of party, our message to lawmakers was stand up for the Iowans who have told you time and time again that they simply are not interested in politicians making personal medical decisions for them. And it was important to have those voices raised and we certainly saw that at the Capitol on Tuesday with the over 1,000 Iowans who turned out and much more than that who voiced their concerns to their lawmakers in advance of that day.

Rooker: And on Tuesday there was a long debate at the Statehouse. During that debate a lot of time was spent talking about some of the exceptions that are included in this bill. Let's delve into that a little bit. Maggie, we'll start with you. There are exceptions in the bill that allow doctors to perform abortions in the case of medical emergency. From your understanding of the bill, is the intent of that exception to protect the mother's life or to preserve her health?

DeWitte: Well, I would say both. And really any abortion law or ban that we have in the books is never going to interfere with a physician's ability to take care of their patient in medical emergencies. And so, that has been the case always and no ban will ever change that fact. So, physicians are always going to be free to provide the needed medical care for emergency situations involving the life and health of that mother. And so, that won't change. And obviously there is an exception for that very reason, so physicians can do the work they need for their patient.

Rooker: If you were to talk to a doctor who maybe has a patient whose life may not be in imminent danger but she may be getting sicker because of the pregnancy, at what point would you tell that doctor that they are allowed to step in?

DeWitte: Well, I'm not a doctor, but I trust doctors and I trust all of their years of training. And we had OBs that testified at the hearing on Tuesday. I trust that they know their patients and they know through their medical training what is a situation that is life threatening? What is a situation where they are going to need to intervene on behalf of their patient?

Rooker: And Mazie, talking about those exceptions, opponents of this bill have said that it puts women's lives in danger. But there are exceptions for medical emergency. What is your response to people who say the argument that women will die because of this is fear mongering?

Stilwell: Sure, well I'm certainly glad that we agree that we should be listening to doctors and medical professionals in this conversation and that neither of us is one of those trusted medical professionals. So, you need look no further than the registrations on the bill to see that the organizations of doctors and medical professionals were staunchly opposed to this bill and those doctors showed up at the Capitol to tell us that a bill like this puts them in the position of deciding between following their ethical guidelines and violating the law and losing their license. So, we have heard very consistently that doctors want to be able to practice without political interference. They are not interested in having untrained politicians trying to dictate how they practice. And that is something that we have seen in the year since the Dobbs ruling that states that have enacted abortion bans, we have seen that these exceptions are useless. These exceptions put lives at risk and these exceptions put doctors and nurses and the people charged with caring for us in the position of choosing whether to follow the law and continue to be able to practice or caring for the patients that they signed up to care for. So, we certainly, we saw that happen in the debate on Tuesday, we saw that lawmakers were unwilling to protect the right to abortion for children under 12. The idea that we have sufficient exceptions within this bill is simply not true.

Murphy: Why is that? Why is the language of the bill saying that if the mother's life is at stake, why is that insufficient?

Stilwell: Well, we see a bill going into effect immediately without rules in place to actually instruct those medical professionals how to handle different situations. We also heard from the doctors themselves who are saying that at what point, this bill does not tell me at what point in the process of my patient dying before me should I be able to intervene? And this bill does not make that clear to me. And so, those exceptions that we see claim to be within this bill have played out identically in other states and we have seen women dying, we have seen women unable to carry future pregnancies because of the inability of doctors to practice without political interference.

Henderson: Maggie DeWitte, at what point do you expect the Board of Medicine to step in and sanction doctors? And what will the sanction be?

DeWitte: Well, that I don't know. I mean, obviously I think we are anticipating court action on this. And so, given that fact I don't know. They will probably defer to what happens in the legal process before they are able to make any determinations as to how to move forward with the rules and regulations regarding this particular bill.

Henderson: So, Mazie Stilwell, what is the impact on a doctor who prescribes a medication abortion as a result of this legislation?

Stilwell: You know, without the rules in place we simply don't know. And that is why this process is playing out in a way that we know is dangerous for doctors to be able to practice at a time when Iowans are already facing significant barriers to accessing health care. So, we already have some of the worst per capita rates of OBGYNs here in the state. We know that rural Iowans are already struggling to access care. And what these OBGYNs have told us time and time again from labor and delivery units closing to the inability to receive post-partum Medicaid coverage beyond 60 days, we are not supporting mothers in this process, we are not supporting a health care system that is able to sustain a tax like this. And so, we don't know what the ramifications will be for doctors who are trying to practice according to their best judgment. That is certainly part of why Planned Parenthood is seeking to not let a dangerous law like this go into effect and begin harming people right away. We know that it needs more time and it needs to follow some common-sense process for physicians to be able to practice responsibly and not risk their careers to do so.

Henderson: Maggie DeWitte, at the federal level they are talking about allowing over-the-counter sales of abortion pills. What does your group, what is the position of your group in regards to that? Will you object to that being allowed in Iowa?

DeWitte: Well, certainly I don't think that anything that is dangerous like a medication abortion RU486 should ever be over-the-counter. I think that it has been well established that it is a danger to women. It has caused all kinds of complications for women. It has caused death for women and obviously death of her unborn child. And so, we would not be supportive of having a dangerous drug like that be available over-the-counter.

Murphy: And Maggie, is your understanding, I know you didn't write the bill, but is your understanding that the bill also would ban medication abortions? Or are you unclear on that?

DeWitte: Well, the bill is very clearly stated that when a fetal heartbeat is detected you cannot have an abortion. So, when that woman goes in for an appointment, whether it is surgical or medical, when the heartbeat is determined to be present she is not able to have an abortion.

Murphy: And Mazie, it looked like you wanted to respond.

Stilwell: I do, I just want to clarify for your audience so that they are getting accurate information that medication abortion is safer that Tylenol. It is extremely safe and we have had medical professions and medical organizations affirm that time and time again. It is an extremely safe medication. And I also want to clarify the fact that talking about a heartbeat at this stage is also medically inaccurate. And so, we are talking about embryos and we are talking about embryos that do not yet have hearts. These are electrical impulses. And so, let's be clear and precise in what we're talking about here, which is the fact that we are putting the lives of Iowa women in danger by denying them access to health care and for nothing other than unqualified politicians trying to practice medicine and this is yet another example of why they do not belong in this lane.

Murphy: I need to move the conversation along here. We have so much still to get to in our time available. Mazie, I wanted to ask you, speaking of over-the-counter, although this may be more accurately just behind the counter, Governor Reynolds has had a proposal for multiple years now to make birth control available through a pharmacist without a doctor. I assume your group has been supportive of that. But why has Planned Parenthood not been more vocal in support of that to get that helped pushed through the legislature because so far it has been unsuccessful in recent years. Why has Planned Parenthood not advocated more for that particular policy?

Stilwell: We actually have registered in support of that policy every time that it has come up. So, that is certainly improving access to extremely safe birth control is something that we will always support. And we know that there is more to that conversation as well. Our maternal mortality rates are worse today than they were 30 years ago. We're going in the wrong direction. And if we actually claim to care about the health of mothers in this state then we should be prioritizing things like expanding that post-partum Medicaid coverage. And yet, unfortunately we have not seen that be the priority like taking these freedoms away has been from politicians.

Henderson: Maggie DeWitte, does your organization support expanding Medicaid coverage for post-partum care for a woman on Medicaid who has had a baby up to a year, which is now the norm in states like Missouri, which has a republican Governor and a conservative legislature?

DeWitte: Sure, we did support that and we did not want to see that part of the bill taken out. So, we were in support of that and a variety --

Henderson: So, why did it get taken out?

DeWitte: I don't know why it got taken out. But we were in support of that particular part of the bill, yes.

Rooker: Now, you both have been lobbying on this bill and are familiar with it. It would require an ultrasound, require doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect what the bill calls a fetal heartbeat before they could perform an abortion. But there is still a 24-hour waiting period in play here. From your understanding, and Maggie we'll start with you, do you think this bill would require two ultrasounds to be performed, one after that 24-hour waiting period as well?

DeWitte: That I don't know. But I would say that when a woman goes in to determine whether she is going to have her abortion, per law she needs to have the ultrasound and she does need to wait that 24 hours. And so, within that 24 hours if the doctor determines that another ultrasound is to be administered, that would be the call of that doctor. But certainly, we want to have her get the care that she needs. And so, if that requires two ultrasounds all the better because we want her to have the time to make a very informed decision about her pregnancy.

Rooker: Legally do you think that second ultrasound is required when that doctor goes to perform that abortion? Under this law would that be requiring two? Or is it going to be up to on a case-by-case basis doctor to doctor?

DeWitte: I think it's going to be the doctor's decision based on the patient, based on her circumstances as to what care that doctor is going to provide for that woman.

Rooker: Mazie, is your understanding the same?

Stilwell: Well, we certainly can't speculate what the Iowa Board of Medicine will do. We know that this is unclear within the law the way that it was extremely poorly written. We also have the admission on the floor of the Iowa House that this bill is not following medical standards of practice that are outlined within the law. So, we're not worried about medicine here, we're worried about taking away freedom from Iowans. And unfortunately, that is going to harm many Iowans in the process.

Henderson: Mazie, I want to talk about the road to Tuesday. Governor Reynolds signed an almost identical law like this in the spring of 2018. She ran against someone that your organization endorsed in Fred Hubbell and she won election in 2018. She has appointed a majority of justices on the court. She signaled in 2022 that she wanted this to happen and she got re-elected by 20 points and the majorities for republicans in both the House and the Senate expanded since 2018. Isn't this policy what Iowa voters voted for?

Stilwell: I think it's a fair question. And to say that every time Iowa voters have been asked directly on the question of their support for reproductive freedom, they have told us time and time again through a growing majority that 61% of Iowans want that access to safe and legal abortion in most or all cases. So, we certainly hope that they will show up at the polls with that being their leading priority. But to say, of course, that was not their leading priority in those elections and we could speculate all day as to why that may have been. But going forward we know that the only way to reclaim reproductive freedom and that bodily autonomy here in the state is going to be at the ballot box.

Murphy: Just the converse to that, to you Maggie DeWitte, as Mazie referenced the Iowa Poll, which is widely respected and gold standard polling here, just earlier this year showed that 61% of Iowans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. So, the voters have spoken one way but when you ask them the individual question how do you --

DeWitte: Well, I would say too that same poll said 21% don't believe that abortion should be always legal. So, I think when you look at that they also, that same poll said that more Iowans agreed and approved with how the legislature was doing than disapproved. So, I think those are two key things to look at regarding that particular poll. And there was a Marist Poll that was just conducted in April of 2023 that said 66% of Americans believe that abortion should be limited to the first three months of pregnancy. So, I think that the American people and the Iowan people are not in lock step with the democratic position that abortion should be legal at any point for any reason up until the point of birth and that taxpayers should pay for that. That is out of step with what Iowans believe. And as Kay pointed out, we have a pro-life Governor, we have not only a majority but a super majority and that is the will of the people.

Murphy: Okay, I apologize, we're running out of time and we have more questions to ask. Maggie DeWitte, we'll stay with you to start this one. Bob Vander Plaats of the Christian conservative Family Leader group has suggested that the Supreme Court justices who did not reinstate the 2018 bill that we talked about earlier should be impeached. Do you agree with that?

DeWitte: I certainly think that it was part of the conversation as all things were on the table at that point because, again, we had been waiting since 2018 for this bill that was already signed into law by our Governor but had been held up by injunctions and quite frankly justice legislating from the bench. And so, I do think that impeachment was on the table. But I am supportive of our legislators moving forward and doing it quickly in this special session so now we can move forward, get the legal process, get this bill back in front of the justices who had claimed that there were some procedural issues as to why they were saying that this could not move forward.

Murphy: Mazie, speaking of that process, legal process moving forward, part of the reason that we're here is on the decision on the 2018 bill it was a split decision because one of the justices recused herself. The intervening parties are the same. Do you expect Justice Oxley to recuse herself again in this case? Do you have any sense of that?

Stilwell: I have no sense of that. She didn't have to give a reason for recusing herself before and we don't know how the justices will act in the future. We certainly do not agree in trying to intervene in that process. We believe in letting the justice system play out and we believe that justice will prevail for Iowans who value that freedom.

Rooker: Shifting topics a little bit here, Maggie, you have said before that you would like a total abortion ban to go farther than what lawmakers just passed. But on Tuesday, several republican lawmakers on the floor stated that life begins when a heartbeat starts. Within your movement, do you see disagreement? And could that impact future legislation?

DeWitte: Sure, well I think there's a wide variety of opinion on this as we saw on Tuesday. But I think it's pretty well established in science that life begins at fertilization, life begins at conception, and as such it is a living human being and therefore should deserve equal protection under the law. And so, that has been the position of the pro-life movement for as long as I have been involved and certainly since Roe v. Wade came into being in 1973, that this is a human being and it deserves protection. And so, we will continue to advocate for protection of all lives here in Iowa.

Henderson: Donald Trump says that's a loser politically.

DeWitte: Yeah, and I would disagree on that. I think if you look at the last election cycle, those candidates who were very strong on life, they prevailed in their elections. I think those who were sidestepping the issue lost. So, there were several states that candidates led on the life issue and they prevailed at the box office. So, I think that is a clear indication that Trump is wrong on that. I think life is a winning issue.

Rooker: Well, Mazie, as you're talking to people in this state, where do you say that your movement stands on abortion legislation? Would you like Iowa law to remain allowing abortion up to 20 weeks? Or would you want something less restrictive?

Stilwell: A ban is a ban plain and simple. We know that bans are targeting those Iowans who are living in rural areas who already face access to health care, they are targeting Iowans with lower incomes who can't afford to travel to a state that actually values their freedom. And so, we do not believe that bans have a place in our state when we are talking about politicians trying to make personal medical decisions for Iowans. We need to get untrained politicians out of the conversation and leave that to the doctors and nurses who care for patients in the way that they have been trained to do.

Henderson: I need to make a decision here to cut our conversation short and advise our viewers rather and listeners to the podcast that we have some programming changes ahead. Thanks to both of you for joining us today.

DeWitte: Thank you very much.

Stilwell: Thank you so much for having me.

Henderson: We will not be on the air with an Iowa Press episode next Friday, July 21st because this network will be airing the High School Softball Championships at the time of our regular broadcast schedule at 7:30 on Friday. Iowa Press will be back on July 28th with a new episode. You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.




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