Belgrade Rep wants voters to decide when ‘personhood’ begins

If passed, the constitutional amendment would appear before voters in November 2022

By: - February 17, 2021 4:48 pm

People attend a “Fight4Her” pro-choice rally in front of the White House at Lafayette Square on March 29, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Montana voters may have the chance to answer a question the United States Supreme Court intentionally left unresolved in its 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling — when does life begin?

House Bill 337, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would put a constitutional amendment to the voters in November 2022 to decide if “personhood” begins at the time of conception.

Hinkle’s bill defines personhood as “all members of mankind at any stage of development, beginning at the stage of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning or condition of dependency.”

The bill is the latest installment of legislation proposed by Republican lawmakers that would restrict access to abortion. Opponents argued HB337 would restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare, like abortion. Those in favor said the amendment is necessary to protect unborn children.

During his opening comments, Hinkle said two principles guide his legislation, life and liberty. And, he said, life comes first, “because without life there is no liberty.”

The bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee Monday. No executive action was taken.

Because granting personhood to a fetus would give it the full rights under the Montana constitution — like the right to life — the bill criminalizes abortions, Laurel Hesse with the Montana American Civil Liberties Union testified.

“Despite not mentioning the word abortion in the bill, legally defining personhood in this way would have the effect of criminalizing abortion in Montana, including the medical professionals who provide them, and the patients who seek them,” she said.

The bill could also criminalize any activity that “prohibits a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, or threatens to harm or destroy a fertilized egg,” like common types of birth controls, she said.

If passed, Hesse said it would violate Montana’s constitutional right to privacy, including the right to abortion.

The bill excludes miscarriages and other unintentional acts by a mother from being considered a criminal act.

Laura Terrell, who testified on behalf of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, said the health of the pregnant mother and expertise from doctors should drive medical care.

“This so-called personhood bill is just another thinly veiled attempt by politicians to restrict people’s access to reproductive health care,” she said. “This bill can create a legal quagmire for any doctor who needs to provide medical care to a pregnant woman if that care might endanger an ongoing pregnancy.”

Proponents of the bill mostly shared personal stories about how abortion has affected their lives and voiced their shared agreement that a person is a person at the point of conception.

Many bill supporters, including Dr. Annie Bukacek, president of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, said it comes down to science.

“Humanity of the unborn isn’t questionable science: At conception, a new human is born,” she said while holding an anatomically correct model of a fetus at 12 weeks gestation.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers from both parties had trouble deciding how closely related the bill is to abortion and how much testimony could focus on abortions.

Committee chairman Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, had to rein in proponents’ testimony multiple times to keep them within the bill’s blurry lines.

“This is not for or against abortion; this is about the definition of a person,” Usher said. “If you skirt or rub up against that topic, that’s OK. We’ll give you that leeway, but just don’t make your entire testimony pro or against abortion.”

The debates started when ordained rabbi Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, objected to a proponent’s testimony that compared supporters of the bill to Hitler.

While making the argument that the bill would give the same rights to unborn children that previous civil rights legislation granted to Indigenous people, people of color and women, Dennison Rivera, chairman of the Lawis and Clark Young Republicans, said, “to object to this bill is, is to basically align yourself with the likes of Hitler, the KKK, Margaret Sanger and many others who consider people like me to be an inferior race.”

Despite Stafman’s objection to the comment, Usher let Rivera continue.

“I think it’s part of history, and we can’t erase history, so continue,” Usher reasoned.

Earlier in the session, Stafman was shut down during a debate about sanctuary cities for arguing the lack of sanctuary cities in the United States at the beginning of the Holocaust led to the death of nearly 1,000 Jews.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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