HELENA — With a key legislative deadline approaching at the end of the week, Montana lawmakers have been holding marathon hearings to get through a huge number of bills.
Friday is the transmittal deadline, when any bill that doesn’t appropriate money or affect state revenues must pass through at least one chamber in order to keep moving forward. On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee held initial hearings on more than a dozen bills, including two that would tighten regulations on abortion in Montana.
House Bill 721, sponsored by House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would prohibit what it calls “dismemberment abortions,” except in case of a medical emergency that occurs prior to fetal viability.
HB 721 deals with a procedure called “dilation and evacuation,” a form of surgical abortion in which a fetus is removed using forceps or similar tools. It is a typical form of abortion during the second trimester of pregnancy – after 12 weeks.
The bill includes explanatory clauses describing the procedure as using tools to “slide, crush, or grasp a portion of an unborn human being's body,” and referring to it as “a barbaric practice.” It would establish a felony charge for anyone who performs that type of abortion, and require suspending a physician or physician assistant’s medical license for at least a year.
Regier said HB 721 would not be a block on abortion in general or after a specific gestational age – merely a prohibition on one procedure. He pushed back on a legal review from state staff, which suggested the bill wouldn’t fit with the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in Armstrong v. State, which established a right to pre-viability abortion.
“This does not stop a woman from obtaining an abortion,” Regier said. “As I just stated, there are multiple ways still available. Please don't be distracted by any of the opposition's what-ifs, or people's unadjudicated opinions, as the ones stated here in the legal note.”
Opponents said the bill was part of a pattern of proposals to chip away at abortion rights, and that it used inflammatory language and appealed to emotions rather than specific reasoning. They said the procedure it sought to prohibit is the safest, most common abortion procedure for pregnancies in the second trimester.
“This bill would allow politicians to stand in the way of a person's decision and a doctor's recommendation,” said Quinn Leighton, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. “A person's health, not politics, should guide important medical decisions during pregnancy.”
The second abortion-related bill heard Monday was House Bill 625, from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings. It would require health care providers to perform lifesaving care on infants born alive, including after an abortion.
“A civilized society should never deny lifesaving, medically necessary care to any child born alive, including one who survives an attempted abortion,” she said.
Seekins-Crowe said, while she was pregnant with her son, her doctor told her the child was unlikely to survive. She decided not to terminate the pregnancy, and her son went on to live. She said HB 625 would guarantee infants receive respect and care.
In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers submitted a similar bill to voters as Legislative Referendum 131. That ballot measure was rejected 53%-47% in November’s election.
HB 625 includes some changes to address concerns raised by opponents last year, like an exemption that would allow a family to decline additional procedures for an infant that has no chance to survive long-term. Opponents of LR-131 had said they were concerned families would be separated from those children while doctors performed procedures that wouldn’t help.
“This bill makes clear that that will never be the case, and that removes the main argument for voting against LR-131,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. “We believe that, if that language had been included in the original ballot referendum, that ballot referendum would have passed without a problem.”
Opponents of the bill again said they saw it as an overreach. They said state law and medical ethics already ensure healthcare providers won’t deny care to infants born alive.
“It’s already against the law to do that,” said Robin Turner, representing the ACLU of Montana. “What this bill is trying to do is stigmatize folks who are trying to have reproductive health care.”
Supporters said HB 625 differed from existing law because it would apply to non-viable infants as well as viable infants.
Last week, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance two other abortion-related bills:
- House Bill 575, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, would prohibit abortions after fetal viability, except when necessary to protect the mother’s life. It would require an abortion provider to determine whether a fetus is viable, and establish that viability is presumed after 24 weeks.
- House Bill 544, sponsored by Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, would require prior authorization before Medicaid pays for abortion services. That bill would essentially put into state law a policy that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services adopted in a recent rule.
Democratic legislators have also introduced several of their own bills on abortion. Three of them have been voted down in House Judiciary:
- House Bill 432, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, would have codified the right to pre-viability abortion, as established in the Armstrong decision, into state law.
- House Bill 471, sponsored by Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, would have provided an exemption to abortion prohibitions if a woman “seeks the abortion in accordance with the woman's sincerely held religious tenets.”
- House Bill 570, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, would have created a civil penalty for someone who “interferes with an individual's ability to obtain reproductive or endocrine health care.”