Sen. Keith Regier
Montana Sen. Keith Regier (R-Kalispell), appears on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 24, 2023. In the first week of the 2023 session, Regier brought a draft resolution calling on Congress to “investigate alternatives to the reservation system.” Credit: Eliza Anderson Wiley/MTFP

Lawmakers and members of the public feuded over bills to curb abortion in multiple hearings Monday and Tuesday, debates that reached a peak when Democrats walked out of a Senate committee to protest what they called inflammatory rhetoric from proponents.

The slate of bills heard this week, most of which were already confirmed along party lines in the House chamber where they were introduced, propose myriad abortion restrictions in Montana at different stages of pregnancy and bar the use of public funds for the procedures except in extreme circumstances. They include:

  • House Bill 721, which bans dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedures, the most common method for second-trimester abortions
  • House Bill 575, a bill to prohibit on abortion after 24 weeks
  • House Bill 625, legislation to require medical care for born-alive infants, including those born after an abortion, even if they are deemed non-viable
  • House Bill 862, a bill to prohibit the use of public funds for abortion unless in the case of rape, incest or life-threatening health conditions for the mother

Despite the overturning of federal abortion protections last year, abortion remains legal in Montana because of the state constitution’s right to privacy and an affirming Montana Supreme Court decision. Three Republican bills passed in 2021, which added restrictions to medication abortions, required the offering of an ultrasound and prohibited abortions after 20 weeks, have been enjoined in an ongoing court case in Yellowstone County. 

Republicans and anti-abortion advocates have continued to advance bills this session to limit abortion outright or tightly regulate specific procedures, often in the name of protecting women and unborn children.  

“The Legislature is not prohibited from enacting legislation aimed at protecting the interest in unborn babies’ lives,” said Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszsloffy Tuesday during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of HB 721. 

Democrats, medical organizations and abortion clinic operators have pushed back on the proposed bills as unconstitutional and an infringement on personal medical choices. Opponents on Tuesday also criticized the premise and language of the bills, accusing proponents of sowing fear and increasing stigma. 

“It isn’t OK that we have had to listen to supporters use inflammatory rhetoric designed to arouse anti-abortion sentiments,” said Stephanie McDowell, director of the Bozeman reproductive health clinic Bridgercare, in testimony to Senate lawmakers. “… Medical decision-making should be based on medical best practices, not criminalization, inflammatory rhetoric, or ideology.”

Out of all the pending legislation, HB 721, sponsored by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would directly impact a larger number of Montanans, given that roughly 11% of abortions nationwide occur after the first trimester of pregnancy. Of those, about 95% are conducted using D&E procedures — when a person’s cervix is dilated and the uterus is emptied with suction and possibly surgical instruments. 

The bill’s language specifically bans “dismemberment abortion,” a broadly defined, nonmedical term that has been the basis for similar prohibitions on D&E procedures in other states.

A legal note drafted by legislative staff states that HB 721 appears to prohibit all such procedures at any stage of pregnancy and could trigger a constitutional conflict by infringing on the right to seek a pre-viability abortion. Regier said that analysis was “false” in his Tuesday comments to lawmakers, stating that the bill still allows for other abortion procedures, such as medication or cesarean section, in the second trimester. 

Democratic members of the Senate committee, Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, and Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, repeatedly protested opponents’ language during Tuesday’s hearing, including the use of “abortionist” to refer to abortion providers and graphic characterizations of D&E procedures. The chair of the committee, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, rebuked Democrats’ interruptions and maintained that proponents were stating their own opinions on the topic. 

Eventually, after Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, referenced satanism while posing a question about differing religious views on abortion, Gross and another lawmaker, Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, left the room.

“We have gone beyond opinion. We are now in a decorum issue. We are, as a committee, continuing to bully, shame and inflame this debate,” Olsen said as her colleagues exited the hearing. “And that is just not acceptable for me as a member of this committee.”

Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, subsequently requested a meeting with Regier and other members of the committee to discuss decorum issues, which members of the media were allowed to attend. No resolution was reached.

“The next bill deals with abortion. We have difference of opinions. Let people talk without interrupting,” Regier said.

The committee has not yet voted on HB 721 or the other abortion-related bills it heard on Monday and Tuesday — HB 575 and HB 625. 

Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved along party lines HB 862, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, which would bar all use of state Medicaid funds and other public dollars for abortion unless in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. 

Currently, Montana uses its own Medicaid plan to cover medically necessary abortions, a policy created in response to a 1995 district court ruling. Another bill to require pre-authorization to justify Medicaid coverage for abortions, House Bill 544, has already passed the House and is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate on Friday. 

HB 862 takes that proposal further, implementing the same standards for the federal Hyde Amendment in state law and prohibiting the use of public funds for abortions in most cases. When presenting the bill to members of the committee Monday, Hopkins said he wanted clearer distinctions for how state dollars are spent. 

“This bill says nothing about whether or not abortion should be legal or illegal in the state of Montana,” said Hopkins. “… What it does say is that if it’s something that you want to do in a place where it is legal, you pay for it. That’s not unreasonable.”

Abortion access and reproductive health advocates testified that the bill targeted low-income women and would make abortion largely inaccessible for that specific demographic.

None of the abortion proposals advanced so far this session have arrived on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk to await his signature or veto. 

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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.