Three bills to restrict or further regulate abortion in Montana are one vote away from going to the governor for his signature into law, after Republicans in the state Senate endorsed the measures Thursday on straight party-line votes.
The Senate also advanced a bill that would place a referendum before Montana voters in 2022, asking them whether a fetus born alive during an abortion should be a legally protected person.
The endorsement of the four bills came after nearly two hours of compelling, emotional debate by supporters and opponents – but the outcome on each was the same, with 31 Republicans in favor and 19 Democrats against.
“This is not about politicians practicing medicine or playing doctor,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, a supporter of the bills. “This is about human beings looking out for human beings. That’s a good thing to do.”
The first three bills would ban abortions in Montana after 20 weeks of pregnancy, make it much more difficult to obtain abortion-inducing, prescription drugs in the state – including a ban on distributing them on college campuses – and require physicians to offer women requesting an abortion the chance to see an ultrasound of the fetus, and hear its heartbeat.
They face a final, binding vote in the Senate before going to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has strongly indicated he will sign them.
Opponents have vowed to challenge the measures in court, saying they violate Montana’s strict constitutional right to privacy, for women making medical decisions.
Whatever ultimately happens to the bills, their becoming law would mark a sea-change in Montana’s political landscape, as similar measures have been blocked by Democratic governors in Montana for the past 16 years.
Democrats spoke strongly against the bills Thursday, calling them a clear attempt to shut down abortion in the state.
“Every one of the four bills we heard today are really about an agenda with a single objective: To completely make inaccessible and illegal all abortion in Montana,” said Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said the bills are political intrusions by those who don’t trust women and their respective doctors to make the best decision for themselves, about their pregnancy.
She said the measure requiring physicians to offer to show women an ultrasound of the fetus was especially offensive.
“It’s not about providing women more information, to make a better decision,” she said. “It’s about intimidating women to see if you can force them to change their decision.”
Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, also said the bill requiring women to consult with a physician in person, before getting abortion-inducing drugs, is a ban on telemedicine for one service, that will fall hardest on women in remote, rural areas.
Supporters of the bills said it’s a moral issue and about protecting unborn children.
“There is nothing more precious than an unborn baby and a born baby,” said Sen. David Howard, R-Park City. “In Matthew, Jesus said whoever causes one of these little ones to be hurt – it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their head and drowned in the sea.”
He predicted that Montana voters would strongly support the referendum to protect babies born alive during an abortion.
“This bill is about human rights,” Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said of the measure banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. “This bill will ensure that unborn children who are developed enough to feel pain are respected.”