Protesters rally for abortion rights in front of the Missoula County Courthouse on June 26, 2022.
Protesters rally for abortion rights in front of the Missoula County Courthouse on June 26, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

Protesters advocating for abortion rights rallied in cities around Montana over the weekend in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had made abortion legal across the country for nearly fifty years.

The court’s decision on Friday to nullify that legal precedent has sparked rage and celebrations nationwide. While abortion remains legal in Montana under an 1999 state Supreme Court ruling, nine states enacted all-out bans on abortion procedures almost immediately, with a handful of others likely to soon follow suit. The changing landscape is a simultaneous long-sought win for advocates who see abortion as an immoral act and a devastating loss for people who believe abortion access is essential to reproductive autonomy. 

In front of the county courthouse in downtown Missoula, hundreds of people blanketed the lawn and surrounding sidewalks for roughly two hours, waving signs that included “Abortion is health care” and “It’s not pro-life, it’s pro-control,” a jab at the anti-abortion movement. Speakers called for donations to a Montana abortion fund called the Susan Wicklund Fund, voting for political candidates who support reproductive choice, and supporting abortion providers working to keep their doors open in Montana.

“Knock on doors, get good candidates elected that will fight for our rights,” said Sandra Burch, a representative of the Democratic Socialists of America who served as the rally’s emcee. She then led the crowd in a chant of “We will fight!”

The protesters eventually left the courthouse lawn and marched towards Higgins Avenue, where the crowd spilled off of sidewalks and into the street, blocking traffic across Higgins and Broadway Street for approximately fifteen minutes. Some drivers honked horns and began cheering upon seeing the cause for the traffic jam. After the marchers returned to the courthouse, passing drivers continued to honk in support of the protest, eliciting loud cheers from the rally-goers.

Since Friday, large protests have also been held in Helena, Bozeman and Billings

In Missoula, some speakers called for the crowd to protect the Montana Constitution which, unlike the U.S. Constitution, includes an explicit right of privacy. The 1999 Montana Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal, Armstrong v. State, was rooted in that part of the Constitution, determining that  abortion access is protected as a private medical procedure. 

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who sits on one of the legislative committees that has historically dealt with bills to regulate abortion, told attendees that the right to privacy is likely to come under intense political pressure from abortion opponents.

“For those of you who think that our protections under the Montana Constitution will hold, I can tell you as a member of the Senate Judiciary [Committee] … that Montana’s Constitution is next,” she said. “I think it is in grave, grave danger.”

Sands urged the crowd to translate their anger into political action and remain committed to advocating for abortion access long into the future. 

“This battle takes courage, it takes patience and it takes years of committment,” Sands said, calling for the crowd to cheer for Montana abortion providers, legal advocacy groups and pro-abortion rights lawmakers.

“So to those of you who are joining us for the first time, welcome to the battlefield,” she said. “It’s time to get off your asses, commit or recommit yourself to our freedom … because freedom is not a gift. It requires action.” 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe on Friday, some Montana Republicans who oppose abortion have called for the Montana Supreme Court to reverse the Armstrong ruling, which is facing a pending legal challenge as a result of a package of abortion restrictions the Republican-majority Legislature passed in 2021. The laws were put on hold last fall by a district court judge in Billings, a decision that Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has appealed to the state Supreme Court. 

On Friday, Knudsen reiterated his stance that Armstrong should be overturned.

“The [U.S.] Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion to where it belongs: the People. Now it’s time for the state Supreme Court to do the same,” Knudsen said in an emailed statement. “These decisions, at their core, belong to the People – not judges.”

Judges in Montana are elected officials. Montana Supreme Court Justices Jim Rice and Justice Ingrid Gustafson are up for re-election in contested races this November. Rice is facing off against Billings attorney Bill D’Alton, while Gustafson is defending her seat against Republican Public Service Commission Chairman James Brown, who has gathered notable partisan support from Knudsen, Gov. Greg Gianforte and other Republican officeholders.

While the Supreme Court races and other political contests on the ballot were mentioned during the Sunday protest in Missoula, many attendees and speakers used the event to express solidarity with one another, rage at the changing abortion landscape nationwide, and, ultimately, a desire to have authority over their reproductive choices. 

“Forced birth in a country with no universal health care, no universal child care, no paid family or medical leave, and one of the highest rates of maternal mortality among rich nations — it’s going to be a death sentence, said DeHanza Kwong, a Missoula resident. “Help the people who are already alive.”

Another attendee, Jessie Lueck, told Montana Free Press she was initially motivated to come to the protest because “rage” at the rollback of federal abortion rights. Upon seeing the large crowd and learning about Montana’s current protections for abortion access, she said she felt more hope for how Montana might be able to help out-of-state patients access abortions in the months ahead.

“That leads me to feel that we have something to do,” Lueck said. “That gives me somewhere to put energy.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 27 to correct the spelling of Susan Wicklund Fund.

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.