When the Means Won’t Achieve the Ends

This past May, Iowa Republicans in the state legislature passed, and Governor Kim Reynolds signed, the most restrictive abortion law in the nation. Then, on June 1st, a Polk County District Court Judge issued an injunction blocking the law from taking effect on its originally schedule date of July 1st. The law will remain unenforceable unless the court issues a ruling determining that it withstands constitutional scrutiny. Even if that were to happen, it will be months from now before the court issues its decision.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the Fetal Heartbeat Bill. (NPR).

This law, which bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected (which typically happens around the 6-week mark), is problematic for a multitude of reasons. It almost certainly runs afoul of Roe v. Wade and will be declared unconstitutional by the courts under that precedent, as it effectively bans all abortions (with only a few exceptions). Ultimately, the design of the law is to use the power of the state to effectively take away an individual right.

And importantly, because this is a reactive policy (i.e. doesn’t seek to prevent the issue, but instead to take effect after the issue has already matured), it is an inefficient and ineffective effort to accomplish the supposed purpose of the legislation.

As I understand it, the goal of this law is to greatly reduce the number of abortions taking place. Like so many other solutions offered by politicians, this “solution” won’t really solve anything, other than taking away individual rights. If the authors and defenders of the Fetal Heartbeat Bill were truly interested in reducing abortions, they would pass a bill which directed resources to be used for improving sex education, access to contraceptives and birth control, and access to affordable healthcare. Efforts to improve access to those programs have been more effective at reducing the abortion rate than have policies reducing such access and placing stringent restrictions on the availability of abortions.

A study published by the Guttmacher Institute on January 17, 2017, found that the abortion rate in 2014 hit the lowest mark in 30 years. The study’s March 2017 journal publication made specific reference to Iowa’s “larger than average declines in both numbers of abortion clinics and abortion rates” but noted that Iowa had neither “TRAP [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers] laws or enacted new abortion restrictions.”

While the report acknowledged that a lack of access to clinics could reduce abortion rates, such a reduction in access to medically performed abortions would artificially reduce the abortion rate by simply redirecting some women who would have abortions in hospitals and clinics (where they would be officially reported) to instead have self-induced abortions outside of a medical setting (thereby not being counted in the official statistics).

Indeed, the authors credited Iowa’s “expanded access to family planning for low income women in 2006” for the “reduced levels of unintended pregnancy.” Between 2007 and 2013, a privately funded initiative in Iowa sought to increase access to long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC) to low income women. The ultimate results of these initiatives? “Areas of the state [Iowa] with the most exposure to these programs experienced larger declines in abortion than did those with less exposure.”


Planned Parenthood provides sex education, access to contraceptives and birth control, as well as reproductive health care to millions in the United States, in addition to performing abortions. (WOSU Radio).

The Fetal Heartbeat Bill demonstrates that Iowa Republicans aren’t actually concerned so much with reducing abortions as they are with using the power of the state to restrict women’s reproductive rights and imposing their beliefs onto women. We see similarly short-sighted thinking in many other policies and laws, such as legislation providing for harsh prison sentences for drug use in lieu of providing access to programs that would help individuals overcome their dependence and become productive members of society. Even Obamacare serves as an example of governmental ineffectiveness. The goal of Obamacare was to increase the number of people with healthcare coverage, but sought to accomplish this goal in a convoluted and unnecessarily complex way. The simplest way to fulfill that goal would be to enact a single payer, or Medicare-for-all, system.

Many people across the political spectrum ultimately agree on many policy goals: my best guess is nearly everyone wants fewer abortions, nearly everyone wants fewer people to be addicted to dangerous drugs, nearly everyone wants people to be able to afford healthcare they need to receive. Our policy differences often arise from the solutions to those problems, and far too often people are willing to trade short-term “band-aid” fixes or counterproductive policies based on rigid ideological thinking instead of committing ourselves to reducing the negative outcomes in the most direct and effective manner. We should be using upstream thinking (looking at the causes of a particular event) to achieve real, meaningful, problem-solving solutions, instead of using reactive policies which only address the issue after it has occurred.

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