The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has paused its practice of paying for emergency contraception — and in rare cases, abortions — for victims of sexual assault, a move that drew criticism from some victim advocates.
Federal regulations and state law require Iowa to pay many of the expenses for sexual assault victims who seek medical help, such as the costs of forensic exams and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Under the previous attorney general, Democrat Tom Miller, Iowa’s victim compensation fund also paid for Plan B, the so-called morning after pill, as well as other treatments to prevent pregnancy.
A spokeswoman for Republican Attorney General Brenna Bird, who defeated Miller’s bid for an 11th term in November, told the Des Moines Register that those payments are now on hold as part of a review of victim services.
“As a part of her top-down, bottom-up audit of victim assistance, Attorney General Bird is carefully evaluating whether this is an appropriate use of public funds,” Bird Press Secretary Alyssa Brouillet said in a statement. “Until that review is complete, payment of these pending claims will be delayed.”
Victim advocates were caught off guard by the pause. Ruth Richardson, CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said in a statement that the move was “deplorable and reprehensible.”
Bird’s decision comes as access to the most commonly used method of abortion in the U.S. plunged into uncertainty following conflicting court rulings on Friday over the legality of the abortion medication mifepristone. For now, the drug the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2000 appeared to remain at least immediately available in the wake of separate rulings issued in quick succession.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Texas, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, ordered a hold on federal approval of mifepristone. But that decision came at nearly the same time that U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice in Washington state, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, essentially ordered the opposite.
The extraordinary timing of the competing orders revealed the high stakes surrounding the drug nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and curtailed access to abortion across the country. President Joe Biden said his administration would fight the Texas ruling.
In Iowa, money for the victim compensation fund comes from fines and penalties paid by convicted criminals. For sexual assault victims, state law requires that the fund pay “the cost of a medical examination of a victim for the purpose of gathering evidence and the cost of treatment of a victim for the purpose of preventing venereal disease,” but makes no mention of contraception or pregnancy risk.
Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, who served as director of the victim assistance division under Miller, said the longtime policy for Iowa has been to include the cost of emergency contraception in the expenses covered by the fund. She said that in rare cases, the fund paid for abortions for rape victims.
“My concern is for the victims of sexual assault, who, with no real notice, are now finding themselves either unable to access needed treatment and services, or are now being forced to pay out of their own pocket for those services, when this was done at no fault of their own,” she said.