Laurie Bishop abortion rally
Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, speaks at an abortion rights press conference at the State Capitol in January, 2023. Credit: Eliza Anderson Wiley / MTFP

A bill introduced this week in the Montana Legislature flipped the typical script for hearings on abortion access: Instead of opposing restrictive bills, reproductive rights advocates lined up to support legislation they said would uphold privacy protections by codifying legal abortion in state law. Opponents, on the other hand, urged lawmakers to vote down the bill, calling it “radical” and an “all encompassing piece of pro-abortion legislation.”

House Bill 432, brought by Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, would align Montana’s code with past court rulings and existing constitutional rights that protect private medical choice, the sponsor said during Tuesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. 

“This bill reflects where we are at this moment and is intended to clarify the current legal landscape in Montana,” Bishop said in her opening statement. “It codifies statutory protection for abortion that is consistent with the current state constitutional protection for abortion rights.”

The bill also repeals several parts of Montana code related to abortion that Bishop said are legally unenforceable, including a parental-consent requirement for minors, informed consent from the patient, a prohibition on what state law defines as a “partial-birth abortion,” and a policy that bars abortion providers from contributing to sex education classes in public school districts.

“The struck and repealed sections have been found unconstitutional or are currently enjoined in our courts,” Bishop said. Like other efforts to reduce unnecessary laws introduced this session, she continued, “repeal is the only remedy for code that is no longer an accurate reflection of our current law.”

Bishop was joined by 18 proponents, including Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana and Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic, women’s rights groups and individuals who testified about their own decisions to end a pregnancy. One such person was Anne Angus, who said she decided to have an abortion after finding out that her baby had serious renal system deformities.  

“There’s heavy discussion around parental rights in this session. And so I tell you, abortion is a parental right. I, as a mother, should have the right to make health care decisions for my pregnancy, for my son. And as heartbreaking as it is, sometimes, there is no happy ending in any of the options,” Angus said. “Restricting abortion access forces mothers like me to carry non-viable pregnancies. How do you prepare for a birth knowing that your baby is never coming home?”

Other supporters of HB 432 said the policy reflects Montana’s deeply held commitment to individual privacy and medical choice, aligning with the repeatedly upheld Montana Supreme Court decision in Armstrong v. State, which legalized abortion in Montana in 1999. 

“Our bodies are not wards of the state,” said proponent Carol Wilder. “Women in Montana must continue to be allowed to choose their own health care for their own bodies, just as men are allowed to. No one’s private health care decisions, men’s or women’s, should be decided by politicians in Helena.” Roughly the same number of opponents spoke against the bill on Tuesday, including representatives from the conservative anti-abortion groups the Montana Family Foundation and Students for Life Action, House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and other Montana residents.

“The bill before you is without a doubt the most radical, all-encompassing piece of pro-abortion legislation ever to be introduced in this body in the entire history of the Montana Legislature. And the kicker is that it’s completely out of touch with the electorate,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. 

Addressing the bill’s wide-ranging repeal of current laws, Laszloffy said lawmakers should keep those parts of code in place in the hopes that the Armstrong decision will be overturned. 

“All of the laws are subject to repeal in this bill have been passed by this body,” he said. “And we believe that just as the U.S. Supreme Court struck Roe v Wade, the Montana Supreme Court will eventually come to its senses and strike Armstrong. And when they do, all of these laws will already be in place ready to enforce.”

Several other opponents focused on specific sections of law HB 432 would scrub, including the prohibition on abortion providers contributing to school district health curricula and the requirements for parental consent when minors seek an abortion. While the latter policy is currently enjoined as part of an ongoing lawsuit, opponents of HB 432 said the statue provides an important protection for minors. 

“The last time I testified in front of this committee, I was 16 years old then. I was barely old enough to drive, wasn’t allowed to buy a lottery ticket, vote, go to an R-rated movie, apply for a mortgage, or get an aspirin from the school nurse without the permission of my parents,” said Kaitlyn Ruch, a member of Students for Life Action. “But if this bill would have been the law, then I would have been allowed to get an abortion without my parents ever knowing. How does that make any sense?” 

Lawmakers peppered proponents, opponents and Bishop with varied philosophical and practical questions about abortion during Tuesday’s hearing, including the implications of repealing specific sections of code.

“Would you say that a yes vote today for your bill would be somebody consenting that they would be okay with partial-birth abortion happening in Montana today?” said Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, referencing a non-medical term in Montana’s code that has been interpreted to apply to abortions after the first trimester. A similar federal prohibition, which includes exceptions if a woman’s life is at risk, has been in place since 2007. 

Bishop maintained that that part of code and others referenced in HB 432 would not pass constitutional muster in Montana.

“I think a yes vote for my bill today would recognize that the legislation represented under that title is not constitutional,” Bishop replied. “That it would recognize that the laws that people see when they look at our code should reflect what the laws are. And if something is found to be not constitutional and no longer a part of something that we are able to enforce, then they would know that that’s not there regardless of the language that is used.”

In her closing remarks to lawmakers, Bishop sought to dispel the characterizations from Laszloffy and other opponents that HB 432 is an extreme or radical policy.

“This bill reflects to you the many, many, many, many pieces of legislation that have been brought to this body that are not constitutional and have been attacks on the rights of Montanans,” Bishop said. “So when you see that long list and you think about what feels radical about that long list, I hope that you will consider that perspective as well.”

The committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday. 

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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.