HELENA – A district judge in Helena heard testimony Thursday in a lawsuit that seeks to strike down Montana’s law allowing only physicians and physician assistants to perform abortions.

Two advanced practice nurses who want to be able to provide abortions filed suit in January, saying the law unconstitutionally limited patients’ access to abortion. They are aided by the ACLU of Montana and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The plaintiffs’ argument stems from a 1999 case, in which the Montana Supreme Court struck down a 1995 law that prohibited physician assistants from performing abortions. The court said that restriction violated the fundamental right to privacy, and that citizens had the right to receive medical procedures from the health care provider of their choice.

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The Montana Legislature passed a law in 2005 that allowed only physicians and physician assistants to perform abortions. The plaintiffs say that law defied the 1999 decision. They argued that advanced practice registered nurses, who have received education up to at least a master’s level, can be fully qualified to perform abortions safely, so the state has no legitimate reason to exclude them.

“It’s not the letters at the end of a provider’s name – APRN, PA or M.D. – that makes someone a competent abortion provider,” said Hillary Schneller, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The plaintiffs asked District Judge Mike Menahan for a permanent injunction, to suspend the state law until the case is resolved.

One of the nurses who filed the suit, Helen Weems, is one of the operators of All Families Healthcare, a clinic in Whitefish. Her business partner, Susan Cahill, is the physician assistant who was targeted by the 1995 law. Cahill also operated All Families in 2014, when it was severely damaged by vandalism.

Cahill currently provides abortions two days a week at All Families. Attorneys said Weems has met with several patients who wanted to receive abortions on days Cahill was unavailable. They argued that the restriction on APRNs performing the procedure caused irreparable harm for those patients.

“Each of these patients had to reschedule their appointments, plan to make a return trip to the clinic and delay this time-sensitive health care,” said Schneller.

But Montana deputy attorney general Robert Cameron, representing the state, questioned whether an injunction was necessary. He said allowing Weems to provide abortions wouldn’t substantially increase access to the procedure.

“The only practical impact is that her clinic can provide them in Whitefish four days a week instead of two days a week,” he said. “That falls miles short from the irreparable harm necessary to justify overlooking the merits of the case.”

Cameron also argued that this lawsuit differed from the 1999 case because Cahill had previously been providing abortions and was stopped from doing so by the 1995 law.

Cameron said the state did have a legitimate reason to limit who can provide abortions. He pointed to a study that he said showed distinctly higher health risks when an abortion is performed by someone other than a physician.

“The rate of complications are always equal to or greater when a non-physician is performing the abortion,” he said. “That is the state’s compelling interest in restricting non-physicians’ abilities to perform abortions.”

Menahan did not immediately rule on the motion for an injunction.

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