Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen during a 2023 informational video. Credit: Courtesy Facebook

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has accused one of the state’s most prominent abortion providers of falsifying records and “flagrantly” violating state law by withholding required reports about sexual assault against minors and statutory rape, suggesting that similar alleged inaction by the organization “could be happening with human trafficking victims.”

The first-term Republican attorney general’s comments in a July 31 radio interview echo a decade-old and recently resurfaced conspiracy theory suggesting that the national Planned Parenthood organization abets human trafficking. The interview was recirculated Monday by the news website Jezebel.

A spokesperson for the Montana Planned Parenthood affiliate blasted Knudsen’s allegations as “baseless” in a Tuesday email.

“Planned Parenthood of Montana providers and health center staff are mandatory reporters. We hold the health and safety of our patients above all else, and our health centers comply with all laws regarding reporting abuse,” said Mary Sullivan, communications coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Montana. “Baseless claims of violations from the Attorney General do not protect survivors of violence. These statements aren’t about prosecuting crimes but rather serve his political interests in undercutting health care and privacy for Montanans.”

The state’s top law enforcement official made the comments during a July 31 interview on “Montana Talks” with Aaron Flint. After Knudsen touted his office’s commitment to prosecuting human-trafficking cases, a Lolo-based caller who identified herself as “Marilyn” expressed concern that abortion clinics in Montana are “allowing sex trafficking victims to be brought in for abortions.” 

In response, Knudsen said the caller brought up “a great point” before claiming that evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood of Montana has surfaced in recent litigation.

“We do know from the discovery in some of our lawsuits that we got going with Planned Parenthood and against Planned Parenthood, there are numerous instances where Planned Parenthood has, I mean, flagrantly violated state law and not reported rape cases, even statutory rape cases, and intentionally falsified records in order to protect people and not to tell the state. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this could be happening with human trafficking victims,” Knudsen said. 

Recent litigation has been brought by Planned Parenthood of Montana against the state, not by state attorneys prosecuting the organization. Asked Tuesday what lawsuits Knudsen was referring to, Department of Justice Deputy Communications Director Emilee Cantrell directed Montana Free Press to an April 2022 legal filing in a recent case about Montana’s 2013 law requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortion. A Helena judge struck down that law in February, a ruling the attorney general’s office has appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

In the filing provided by Cantrell, attorneys for the state described a sealed case involving a pregnant minor in Montana, whose age is redacted in the filing, who sought “birth control and other testing” at Planned Parenthood while in a relationship with an older teenager. Lawyers said a district court judge reported the case to law enforcement, flagging that the minor patient was in a relationship with a 19-year-old. Planned Parenthood also reported the case to law enforcement weeks later, according to the legal filing, describing the older male teenager as an 18-year-old, a distinction that could be relevant for sentencing depending on the age of the victim.


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Asked whether the case was the basis for Knudsen’s claim of “numerous instances” in which Planned Parenthood failed to report suspected abuse as required by mandatory-reporting laws and “intentionally falsified records,” Cantrell referenced but did not specify other examples outside Montana.

“Following many documented cases across the country, there are long-standing concerns … that Planned Parenthood fails to fulfill its duty to report suspected sexual abuse. We are aware of at least one instance in Montana where they did not report statutory rape,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell attached links to articles and reports from conservative advocacy groups referencing 2011 claims advanced by anti-abortion advocates that Planned Parenthood has not followed state reporting laws for sexual abuse and trafficking, allegations stemming from undercover videos taken by actors, which the abortion provider said were heavily edited and misleading. One of the reports Cantrell shared is from Live Action, the group that launched the attacks against Planned Parenthood more than a decade ago. 

In court transcripts from the parental consent case, attorneys for Planned Parenthood of Montana said the organization complies with state requirements for mandatory reporters and repeatedly noted that the attorney general could bring legal action against the organization if there were evidence to the contrary.

State attorneys “make a number of factual arguments regarding the mandatory reporting and making innuendo that Planned Parenthood of Montana does not comply with mandatory reporting that this law would somehow aid in that,” said the organization’s attorney, Tanis Holm, in a 2022 court appearance. “If the state truly had a concern about mandatory reporting, the state has the ability to enforce that law.”

In his remarks on “Montana Talks,” Knudsen said his office does not have the capacity to investigate the violations he alleged, a fact he attributed to a staffing shortage in his office and the Montana Supreme Court repeatedly upholding abortion access under the state Constitution’s right to privacy. 

“If the state truly had a concern about mandatory reporting, the state has the ability to enforce that law.”

Tanis Holm, attorney representing Planned Parenthood of Montana, in a 2022 court appearance

“That’s not an area that we’ve got the bandwidth to get into,” Knudsen said of his allegations. “Like I said, I’ve got, it’s really about three and a half human trafficking agents. They’re running all over the state trying to take down a lot of these rings, a lot of these Johns. I think that is something that definitely needs to be looked at. Law enforcement, I think, should be looking at that. I would love to tell you that that’s something that we have the bandwidth and the ability to do here at the Department of Justice. But between our limited resources and just the absolute roadblocks that the Montana Supreme Court throws at us in every case dealing with abortion and any attempt to regulate abortion, it’s a tough row to hoe right now.”

Knudsen’s comments are not the attorney general’s first suggestion of criminal wrongdoing by abortion providers in recent weeks. In a July 24 interview with KGVO’s “Talk Back” radio program, Knudsen defended his office’s authority to seek medical records from abortion clinics — a power he and other Republican attorneys general have said would be threatened by the Biden administration’s proposed revision to federal health privacy law.

In light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Knudsen told “Talk Back” listeners, states have the right to enforce restrictions on abortion procedures.

“You’ve got states like Montana that have stepped up and we’re trying to regulate abortion. We’re not doing away with it, but we certainly are trying to regulate it. And when we’ve got suspicion that laws are being broken and circumvented by certain abortion providers or by certain people, yeah, we’re going to seek those records. We’re going to try to get that information,” Knudsen said. 

Various abortion restrictions passed by Republican Montana lawmakers have been enjoined in court since 2021 when Gov. Greg Gianforte began signing such legislation into law. Similar abortion laws from the 2023 session have also been blocked in court while litigation continues.

Knudsen criticized the Helena District Court judge handling the most recent abortion law cases during his wide-ranging appearance on “Talk Back,” saying that Montana’s judiciary should overturn the case protecting abortion access, Armstrong v. State, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision ending the federal right to abortion. 

“Roe v. Wade doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s time the Montana Supreme Court takes up the Armstrong case. That was the case from 1999. And the ruling that found our state right to privacy also contained the right to have an abortion. That was based on Roe v Wade. Roe v Wade doesn’t exist anymore,” Knudsen said.

The Montana Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed the Armstrong ruling in May 2023, almost a year after the fall of Roe. Writing the opinion for the court, Justice Laurie McKinnon said the Montana Constitution “guarantees a woman a fundamental right to privacy to seek abortion care from a qualified health care provider of her choosing, absent a clear demonstration of a medically acknowledged, bona fide health risk.”


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.