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HELENA — Roughly two hundred supporters of reproductive autonomy rallied at the state Capitol Saturday, protesting government intervention in personal medical decisions a day after multiple abortion restrictions signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte were scheduled to take effect statewide. 

A Montana district court judge on Thursday temporarily blocked the new policies from taking effect until the lawsuit challenging them can be further evaluated, offering brief respite from a rollercoaster of legal maneuvers between state attorneys and Planned Parenthood of Montana that had escalated in the preceding 24 hours. 

That landscape set the tone for the weekend protest, with members of the crowd expressing anger that the policies had nearly become legal reality in Montana. Jenifer Gursky, executive director of the Helena YWCA and emcee of the event, led the group in a chant that sought to sum up their ire.

“Get your bans —” Gurksy called.

“— off my body!” the crowd yelled back.

The laws in legal limbo are House Bills 136, 140, and 171. They would, respectively, prohibit abortions in most cases after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require providers to offer patients an ultrasound before the procedure, and create a web of restrictions for earlier-term medication abortions, including a mandate that such medicine to be distributed in-person. 

Defenders of the laws, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen, have called the policies “commonsense health protections” for pregnant women and unborn children. In September court filings, Montana Solicitor General David Dewhirst defended the laws as a way to support the welfare of Montanans and to “ensure that women undergo the procedure only after being fully informed about the risks and consequences — including that abortion terminates the life of a human person.”

A protester stands vigil at the state Capitol in Helena on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, to oppose new Montana laws restricting abortion access. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

If enacted, the laws would undermine decades-old abortion protections that the Montana Supreme Court has determined are included in the state’s constitutional right to privacy.

The Capitol protest, by turns solemn and energized, was among several taking place in other Montana cities, including Billings and Whitefish, and across the country in support of reproductive choice. Attendees of Saturday’s rally in Helena shared songs, poems and speeches to vehemently oppose recent efforts to curtail abortion access, generally rejecting the notion that the government has any business regulating personal reproductive decisions. 

Other speakers, including Marci McLean, the owner of Flies In The Front LLC, which offers consulting on Indigenous leadership and healing, also explained the breadth of the reproductive justice movement as it overlaps with other social issues.

“What is reproductive justice? It’s economic justice. It’s environmental justice. It’s housing justice. It’s criminal justice. It’s access to health care. It’s everything,” McLean said. “For us to procreate, we need all of our needs met. Our emotional, our mental, our spiritual and our physical.”

The focus of the crowd, however, seemed to be geared toward the policies that make it harder to access abortions. Some of the signs displayed in a march around the Capitol complex read “abortion access for every uturus in every state” and “keep your laws off my body.”

Democratic candidates for one of Montana’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives also addressed the crowd, urging attendees to translate their anger about the new laws to the ballot box.

“This isn’t about protecting your health. This isn’t about protecting anyone’s health,” said Laurie Bishop, a Democratic lawmaker from Livingston, decrying what she called the “bogus” policies passed by the state Legislature. “This is about protecting the power of your Republican Legislature … What are we going to do about it?”

“Vote!” the crowd responded.

Cora Neumann, who has worked to advance women’s rights internationally as part of the U.S. State Department, talked about how restrictions on reproductive rights fall heaviest on people who already face significant societal hurdles.

“These laws not only impact all families, but they have a disproportionate impact on those who already face far too many barriers to health care, such as people of color, people living in rural areas and people with low incomes,” Neumann said. “… Denying care to these patients is simply unacceptable.”

While the laws passed in Montana remain stuck in court, Neumann and other speakers urged attendees not to feel disempowered.

“Things seem and are very dire right now. These laws and actions are frustrating. They’re scary. And this fight is exhausting,” she said. “But one thing I hope you take away from today is to not lose hope. We are Montanans, we are resilient … and we will win.”

The crowd cheered. 

This story was updated Oct. 4, 2021, to correct Marci McLean’s affiliation. She was not speaking at the rally in her capacity as an Indigenous program director for Leadership Montana.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.