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12-week abortion ban and other restrictions surge through House committee

Three Republican bills heard this week were approved on party lines and will now advance to the House floor.M
Posted at 9:02 AM, Mar 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-01 11:02:36-05

HELENA — Republican lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee greenlit bills to ban most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, add reporting requirements for medication abortions and increase medical interventions when non-viable infants are born alive — legislation all introduced within a week of a critical Friday deadline for transferring bills between chambers.

The surge of controversial policies came late in the Legislature’s first half, giving limited time for public input before the bills could be advanced to the Senate for further consideration. All three bills passed Tuesday, over the consistent opposition of the committee’s six Democrats, the same day and day after the proposals were scheduled for hearings.

House Bill 721, sponsored by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would prohibit abortions after 12 weeks of gestation near the end of the first trimester, when health providers no longer recommend medication to terminate a pregnancy and instead use a dilation and evacuation procedure, also known as a procedural or surgical abortion.

Regier described that practice as “barbaric” when presenting the bill to lawmakers on the Republican majority committee Monday, urging them to focus only on what he described as “dismemberment” of a fetus rather than abortion in general.

“This bill is not to stop a woman from obtaining an abortion. The abortion debate is a very important debate and is one that Montanans will have here in the future,” Regier said. “The choice before you is one about procedure and one procedure only, and that is a dismemberment abortion procedure.”

Health care providers who practice such abortions described in Regier’s bill would face a $50,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison, as well as licensure penalties.

Opponents countered that HB 721 was medically inaccurate, inflammatory, criminalized the practice of medicine and would result in loss of second trimester abortion access, an infringement on Montana’s longstanding legal protections for abortion access.

“House Bill 721 is yet another abortion ban. It takes away safe and effective care,” said Nicole Smith, executive director of Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula. “The ban would have the most detrimental impact on the most vulnerable Montanans: those who face challenges such as financial or travel-related reasons, which lead to delays in accessing care.”

Legislative staff attorneys also said the bill created “potential constitutional conformity issues” with the state Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling granting pre-viability abortion access from a chosen provider. While Regier said HB 721 makes exceptions for medically necessary abortions, attorneys in a legal note attached to the bill said the phrase “medical emergency” was “narrowly defined,” concluding that the bill would ban procedural abortions “at all stages of pregnancy in non-emergency and emergency situations.”

The bill passed Tuesday morning, as did House Bill 625, introduced by Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, which would require medical professionals to work to “preserve the life and health” of an infant who is born alive, regardless of viability, a narrowed version of Legislative Referendum 131 that voters rejected in November.

The bill defines “alive” as an infant who “breathes, has a beating heart, or has definite movement of voluntary muscles, regardless of whether the umbilical cord has been cut and regardless of whether the expulsion or extraction occurs as a result of natural or induced labor, cesarean section, induced abortion, or another method.” It includes a mandatory reporting requirement for health care providers who are aware of violations.

Seekins-Crowe and other proponents said the bill goes beyond the existing state laws against infanticide by requiring medical care for babies who may not be considered medically viable.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, testifies Feb. 27 on his House Bill 721, a bill banning abortions after 12 weeks gestation, as his counterpart across the aisle, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, frowns. 

HB 625 states the legislation should not be interpreted as curbing the rights of parents who decide not to pursue medical interventions to delay an infant’s imminent death. But opponents said that caveat fails to protect the privacy of individuals and families experiencing difficult pregnancies and miscarriages.

“[T]he idea that infants are killed following an abortion is a dangerous lie intended to stigmatize abortion and demonize patients and providers. House Bill 625 is just another tired attempt of legislators trying to interfere with private and personal medical decisions that should be between a patient and their health care provider,” said Julia Maxon with the group Montana Women Vote.

The committee reconvened Tuesday evening and also passed House Bill 786. The bill, brought by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, would require abortion providers to distribute information about potential risks from medication abortions to patients and report that disclosure to the state health department.

Supporters said the bill would increase awareness, while opponents countered that HB 786 would add red tape to an already safe and carefully monitored process.

The trio of reproductive restrictions stacked on top of two other bills of a similar nature advanced last week. House Bill 544, implementing prior authorizations for most abortions to be covered by Medicaid insurance, and House Bill 575, barring abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is at risk, passed the House Judiciary Committee along party lines.

All five measures will proceed to the House floor for debate among the full body this week.