HELENA — Two bills restricting abortion in Montana had their first hearings Tuesday at the 2021 Montana Legislature, with the usual for-and-against arguments – but, this time, with a new undercurrent: They might actually become law.
The House Judiciary Committee heard a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a second one tightly restricting the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs, or “chemical abortion.”
Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature has passed many abortion-restriction bills in the past 16 years, only to see them vetoed by a Democratic governor.
But the new governor, Greg Gianforte, is a pro-life Republican – and GOP House leaders made it clear Tuesday they expect the bills to pass out of committee later this week and hit the House floor next week, where they’re likely to pass.
Still, even if the bills do move through the GOP-controlled Legislature to Gianforte’s desk and are signed into law, opponents on Tuesday all but promised a court challenge.
Laurel Hesse of ACLU-Montana told the Judiciary Committee that Montana’s state constitution has one of the strongest privacy provisions in the nation, and that the Montana Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on a woman’s right to make her own heath-care decisions are unconstitutional.
Federal courts also have struck down laws that seek to ban abortion after a fetus becomes viable, as outlined in one of the bills before the committee Tuesday, she added.
“Our unconstitutional right to privacy in Montana extends much further than the federal right to privacy,” Hesse said. “We urge you to vote `no,’ to leave medical decisions to patients and their providers and to save the state from a lengthy court battle.”
Abortion opponents, however, said House Bill 136 places constitutionally allowable restrictions on later-term abortions, to safeguard both the fetus and the mother.
They also said they view the bill and others like it as “baby steps” toward restricting abortion, until an outright ban is achieved nationwide.
“I firmly believe that the day will soon come, when the United States Supreme Court will see the error of its ways and overturn Roe v. Wade, in its entirety,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. “But until it does, we’ll continue to chip away around the edges to save the lives of as many women and children as possible.”
HB136, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, would prohibit abortion of any unborn child “capable of feeling pain,” and defines that point as 20 weeks after conception.
Any doctor or physician’s assistant who performed such an abortion would be committing a felony, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or a prison term up to five years.
Sheldon-Galloway said it’s “unethical” for someone to harm another human being who can feel pain and that women should be able to tell if they’re pregnant before 20 weeks and be able to decide by then whether to get an abortion.
Opponents said abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy are extremely rare and usually performed to address medical issues with the mother. The state should not be inserting itself into that decision, between the woman and her physician, they said.
House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, says an abortion-inducing drug can be obtained only in-person and cannot be dispensed without “informed consent” at least 24 hours beforehand.
The bill also would prohibit distribution of abortion-inducing drugs at college campuses and schools in Montana and require the woman requesting the pill to sign a form in multiple places, acknowledging she’d been told about possible alternatives and complications.
Greef said HB171 is not an attempt to ban abortion but rather meant to protect women from possible harm by these drugs.
“Chemical abortion is a lucrative business,” she told the Judiciary Committee. “It is extremely risky, as you have heard. We have to stop abortions by mail. And we have to protect the future pregnancies of the women who are taking these drugs.”
Lucia Morud, Pacific Northwest coordinator for Students for Life, spoke in favor of the ban on distributing the pills on campuses, saying college-age women are being targeted by unscrupulous marketers and others.
“Every phone can become an abortion vendor, capable of distributing chemical abortion pills,” she said. “This kind of anonymous purchase also allows abusers to get the pills and gives them the capacity to slip a pill into the food or drink of unsuspecting women and force them to have an abortion.”
Opponents of HB171 said the bill is an insult to women, essentially saying women can’t make their own decisions about their own reproductive health care – even after they’ve been raped.
“Let me get this straight,” said Kelsen Young of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “So, now, in addition to the risk of pregnancy from forced sex, by a partner or someone else, House Bill 171 wants us to be subjected to extreme barriers to accessing basic medical care after the assault.”
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear two other abortion-related bills on Wednesday: One that says women wanting an abortion must be given a chance to see an ultrasound, and listen to the heartbeat, of the fetus, and another to put a referendum before Montana voters in 2022 saying infants “born alive” after an abortion are legal persons.