Iowa state senator seeks more restrictions on state funding for abortions

Amendment would apply to abortions performed on inmates in county or state custody

Rod Boshart
Published: March 19 2013 | 10:55 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 12:56 pm in

UPDATE: A Republican state senator said Tuesday he will seek legislative support to prohibit state resources being used to facilitate or perform abortions on female inmates held in state or county custody.

Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Milo, said he plans to offer an amendment to a bill up for Senate debate that seeks to limit the use of handcuffs and other restraints on pregnant inmates who are incarcerated. He said he has 24 Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, who have signed onto the amendment, and he appealed to other members of the Senate’s Democratic majority to support the policy change.

Sorensen said his resolve on the issue was bolstered by a conversation he had Monday with a female county deputy sheriff who told him she was ordered to transport a female inmate for an abortion and be present during the medical procedure “even though she was morally opposed to it.” He declined to identify the deputy or the county where she worked because he promised her anonymity.

“She was forced to stand there and watch the procedure be performed. That was a tear jerker listening to her talk to me about that,” Sorenson told his colleagues during a Senate floor speech. He later told reporters he found the situation to be “appalling.”

“I don’t think we should use state dollars to transport a patient or an inmate to a facility to have an abortion performed,” he said.

Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said “there have been no requests for an abortion on any DOC incarcerated offenders.”

If such a request would occur, the department would make a referral to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics for counseling, Scaletta added.

“If there would be a medical need to terminate the pregnancy, the cost as with all medical procedures would be covered by indigent fund,” Scaletta said in an email statement. “DOC cannot authorize the expense of public funds for an abortion unless there was a life threatening or serious medical threat to the mother.”

Sorenson said he planned to offer his amendment to Senate File 399, a bill prohibiting the use of restraints on inmates known to be pregnant unless it is determined by correctional officers they are necessary because the inmate poses a flight risk or to protect medical and corrections staff and the public. It also calls for developing a birth plan that includes designation of a support person who may be present during labor and delivery.

Sorenson said he tried to draft the amendment in a way that would be “germane” or relevant to the Senate bill, but Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, floor manager for S.F. 399, said she did not believe it would meet that standard to be eligible for floor debate.

“I don’t believe it’s germane to the bill,” Petersen said, adding that the arrival of an abortion amendment did not come as a surprise to her.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he has not seen Sorenson’s amendment, so he would “wait and see” how that bill progressed in the legislative process.

Earlier this session, Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee, ended discussion of a companion bill dealing with shackling of female inmates when she became satisfied the state Department of Corrections is using best practices in its treatment of pregnant inmates.

Petersen said the House position raised concerns about the bill’s future this session, noting that “I think it’s going to be a struggle to get it through the House but I’m hoping that the public will realize that maternal health care policy should be public information. I think Iowans should be able to see how we treat pregnant inmates.”

Officials with the state Department of Corrections and Gov. Terry Branstad’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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