Montana supporters and opponents of abortion rights reacted strongly to the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision published Monday indicating that a majority of the court’s members support overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark federal case legalizing abortion. An official ruling is not expected until late June.
In protests around the state on Tuesday, Montanans rallied for reproductive agency and autonomy, with some attendees expressing shock and anger that the choice to end a pregnancy may soon be extinguished for many citizens nationwide.
In a statement released Tuesday, Planned Parenthood of Montana President and CEO Martha Fuller said the leaked opinion “… confirms our worst fears: that the Supreme Court is prepared to end the constitutional right to abortion by overturning Roe,” Fuller wrote. “While we have seen the writing on the wall for decades, it is no less devastating, and comes just as anti-abortion rights groups unveil their ultimate plan to ban abortion nationwide.”
Montanans who oppose abortion, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, celebrated the signal that Roe may soon fall.
“While outraged by this extraordinary breach, I join millions of hopeful Americans that Roe v. Wade will be put into the vault of history and that the American people and their elected representatives will be empowered once again,” Gianforte said in a Tuesday statement.
The draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito and obtained by the news site Politico, says the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision was “egregiously wrong” and that abortion policy should be decided by individual states. National analysts identified 13 states with “trigger laws” that would immediately ban most abortions if the federal standard is overturned.
Montana is not among that group. Since the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Armstrong v. State, Montana has viewed abortion as a private medical decision and exercise of “procreative autonomy” protected by the state’s Constitution.
The state Supreme Court has long affirmed that privacy matters more than politics. The Republican-led Legislature is trying to change that.
The Armstrong ruling, affirmed several times since it was first issued, is currently being challenged again. In the process of defending a slate of abortion restrictions passed by the state Legislature last year, including a law that would add regulations for earlier term medication-induced abortions, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has argued that Armstrong was wrongly decided and should be overturned.
Those laws were temporarily blocked from taking effect by a Billings district court judge in October until the case is decided. Knudsen challenged the district court’s decision, an appeal that is currently pending before the state Supreme Court.
In an interview with Lee newspapers in the wake of the leaked Alito draft, former Supreme Court Justice James Nelson said the 1999 Amtrong decision was intentionally structured to guarantee abortion access independent from federal law, making it “pretty well bullet-proof” against Roe’s downfall.
Other elected officials weighed in on Tuesday, pointing out the unprecedented release of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion and that the final verdict on Roe remains unknown.
“The Court must issue its ruling based solely on the text of the U.S. Constitution. We will wait for the Court’s official and final decision rather than comment on an improperly leaked draft,” wrote Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Majority Leader Sue Vinton in an emailed statement. “Roe v. Wade was wrong from the day it was issued and we hope and believe that Life will prevail.”
Democrats in the state Legislature said the draft opinion would be a “greater attack” on reproductive rights if it became final and reiterated the importance of Montana’s constitutional protections.
“It is clear that some politicians will not stop until they can control even the most intimate aspects of our private decision making,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour. “Our state’s Constitutional right to privacy has never been more critical, and Montana’s Democratic legislators will fight tooth and nail to defend it.”
States surrounding Montana, including Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, have laws in place to ban abortion if the federal guarantee is overturned. But Fuller, from Montana’s Planned Parenthood affiliate, said Montana already serves many patients from across the region because of limited providers. If Roe is overturned and other states “go dark” on abortion access, she said, Montana may see more patients traveling from further distances to end their pregnancies here.
While her organization will closely watch any official ruling that comes from the nation’s high court, Fuller said Planned Parenthood’s immediate focus is unchanged: protecting Montana patients and providers from restrictive laws and regulations pushed by anti-abortion activists and politicians.
“When you have that as your ultimate goal and purpose and life calling, people will not give up on that,” Fuller said. “But on the other side, nor will we.”
This story was updated May 4, 2022, to include a statement from Democratic legislative leadership.
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