As the Legislature nears a critical deadline for transmitting bills, lawmakers are advancing new abortion regulations and rejecting measures to protect reproductive health access.
The competing abortion proposals break down along traditional party lines, indicating that the issue remains top of mind for lawmakers in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. With restrictive laws from 2021 blocked in ongoing court cases, Montana is one of the few states in the region that has maintained unencumbered legal access to abortions since the June ruling, a fact that continues to distress many Republicans.
“I hope on my tombstone it says, ‘I fought for the unborn,’” said Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, in remarks to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday as the sponsor of one abortion restriction, House Bill 575.
If it becomes law, that policy would ban abortion procedures if a fetus is considered viable and after 24 weeks unless the mother’s life is at risk. HB 575 is an expansion of a 20-week abortion ban bill that Sheldon-Galloway sponsored last session, one of the policies currently enjoined by a district court order.
The bill received support from anti-abortion advocates, including Jeff Laszloffy from the Montana Family Foundation.
“This bill leaves the determination of viability to the medical professionals,” Laszloffy said. “It simply requires that a physician make a determination of viability based on the best available science and survival data.”
Opponents said the viability standard is already included in Montana state law, making HB 575 unnecessary. Instead, reproductive rights activists and medical associations said the bill’s language would add hurdles for doctors and patients navigating high-risk pregnancies when viability is not easily determined.
“These are very desired pregnancies where the patient has been given the news of a severe birth defect or developed a complication where there is a high risk to the mother or they’re at risk of imminent delivery,” said Dr. Timothy Mitchell, a Missoula maternal-fetal medicine specialist. “It is easy to think that viability starts at a specific gestational age. The reality is that these outcomes depend on multiple variables.”
Another opponent representing the League of Women Voters put it even more bluntly.
“There is most definitely no room or time for the government to intervene in high-risk pregnancies,” said Robin Morrison, calling HB 575 “a dangerous, life-threatening infringement on women’s right to privacy and dignity.”
Sheldon-Galloway’s bill did not receive a vote from the committee on the day of its hearing but will likely be considered this week.
Lawmakers on Thursday did approve along party lines House Bill 544, a bill to add requirements for covering “medically necessary” abortions with state Medicaid dollars. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, mirrors a Gianforte administration rule proposal under consideration by the state health department.
After the fall of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions nationwide for nearly 50 years, Montana Republicans’ road to curtailing abortion rights in the state is full of obstacles.
There were no proponents during a hearing Wednesday morning before the House Judiciary Committee, but several opponents said that HB 544 conflicts with the state’s legal protections for abortion by hamstringing access for low-income Montanans.
“This ban will have costly results for low-income patients in the state, coercing patients into carrying a pregnancy to term,” said Robin Turner, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Montana. “If passed, this bill will lead to litigation and will be enjoined.”
A Democrat-backed measure heard by the committee this week, House Bill 570, would have created civil penalties for “intentionally or negligently” interfering with a person’s access to reproductive health care. The majority Republican voted down that bill, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, Thursday in a partisan 13-6 split. Another Democratic proposal brought by Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, would have allowed patients to seek abortion in accordance with their “sincerely held religious tenets.” House Bill 471 was rejected by the same margin earlier this week.
The movement comes as a national poll from the Public Religion Research Institute released this week shows that 64% of Montanans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That response put Montana above its neighboring states, where support ranged between 42 and 56%.
The bills passed by the committee were not the first abortion policies considered this session. Another bill, Senate Bill 154, would insert an interpretation of Montana’s right to privacy as not including abortion access into state law. That bill was transmitted to the House in January after passing the Senate by a comfortable margin.
General bills introduced at this point in the 90-day session must pass out of committee, be approved by the full chamber and be transmitted to either the House or the Senate before March 3, known as the transmittal deadline. Bills that don’t clear those hurdles are presumed dead for the duration of the session.
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