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Montana abortion debate shifts to state level

Montana Justice Building
Posted at 6:52 PM, Jun 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-24 20:52:33-04

HELENA — In the hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaders acknowledged the debate over abortion in Montana is shifting to within the state.

For now, access to abortion will not change in Montana. In 1999, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in Armstrong v. State that the state constitution’s guaranteed right to privacy allowed women to have an abortion before fetal viability.

“Abortion is health care, full stop,” said Stephanie McDowell, executive director of Bridgercare, a nonprofit based in Bozeman that provides reproductive health care. “I would say further abortion remains legal in Montana, and that’s what we’ll continue to tell our patients.”

While Bridgercare doesn’t provide abortions itself, McDowell says they have noticed an impact since the leaked report that the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade.

“We’ve seen an increase in our patients accessing emergency contraception and IUDs – and with abortion bans in place, access to birth control will become even more essential,” she said. “But the reality is that contraceptive care is already limited for too many people.”

Since April, Bridgercare has taken over responsibility to administer Title X federal family planning funding to clinics around Montana. Those funds cannot be used directly for abortions, but can go to clinics that provide broad family planning as well as abortion or abortion-related services.

McDowell says their Montana Family Planning network now includes 23 clinics across the state. Four of those sites are operated by Planned Parenthood, which does provide abortions.

All of Montana’s neighboring states – Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming – have “trigger laws” in place that will automatically ban most or all abortions after the federal ruling is finalized. That could mean greater demand for abortion services in Montana.

“That will likely lead to an influx of patients seeking care in our state and straining capacity at Montana abortion providers,” said McDowell.

For those opposed to abortion in Montana, the federal ruling was welcome, but they acknowledged it’s not likely to bring immediate changes here.

“Our work is just beginning,” said Montana Family Foundation president Jeff Laszloffy in a statement.

Sharon Nason, chair of Pro-Life Helena, said she actually believed the ruling would have negative impacts in the short-term, as more people would seek to come to Montana to obtain abortions. She said advocates will now seek to make the procedure “unthinkable.”

“Really, the goal is, I think, education, so people understand what abortion really is,” she said.

Laszloffy laid out his next goals in his statement.

“We must strengthen our efforts to protect and care for women facing unplanned pregnancies,” he said. “We must also amend our state constitution, or nullify the Armstrong decision which is, in essence, Montana’s version of Roe v. Wade. Only then, will Montana’s smallest and most vulnerable citizens truly be safe.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Republican leaders in the Legislature have also called for reversing Armstrong.

“The court at that time ruled a woman’s ability to pursue an abortion is a right to privacy, which honestly is not contained within the Montana Constitution,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings.

In a statement Friday morning, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was “in discussions with legislative leaders on next steps as we work to protect life in Montana.” MTN asked Vinton if Republican lawmakers had talked about calling a special session to propose more abortion restrictions.

“While we’re certainly discussing all available options, as we saw in the 2021 session – when we were able to pass and the governor signed a number of pro-life bills – what happened after that is that liberals then went straight to the courts, and the courts have blocked that good pro-life legislation from taking effect,” Vinton said. “We need to get folks in Montana, to have our citizens’ eyes on the Montana courts, so that they rule in a manner that is consistent with our constitution and with the will of the people.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she doesn’t believe most people in the state want to see the right of privacy reinterpreted.

“We know the majority of Montanans believe in the explicit right to privacy,” she said. “They support it in our state constitution; the Democratic caucus certainly supports it. Any attempt to eliminate or roll back the right to privacy, I think, would be met with some strong resistance from Montana voters.”

The case where Knudsen called for Armstrong to be overturned is currently before the Montana Supreme Court. Planned Parenthood v. State was assigned to a five-justice panel on May 11.

Clerk of the Supreme Court Bowen Greenwood said there’s no specific timeline for when the court could act on the case, but they generally rule within 180 days of assigning a case to a panel.