Four abortion bills pass initial vote on Senate floor

All four bills passed on party-line votes with Republican support

Demonstrators hold banners in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Four bills limiting access to abortion healthcare in Montana passed initial votes in the Senate on Thursday.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has announced support for two of the bills — House bills 136 and 167 — that, respectively, would ban abortions after 20 weeks and send a referendum to voters to establish the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act.”

The other bills, HB140 and HB171, would require doctors to offer an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion and create more requirements around access to the drugs necessary for chemical abortions.

All four bills passed on party-line votes with Republican support. With a Republican at the helm for the first time in 16 years, GOP lawmakers are making a substantial effort to pass bills like these that former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed.

Three of the bills need to pass a final vote in the Senate before being sent to Gianforte. HB167, which was amended in the Senate, will go back to the House.

Republicans believe the bills are necessary for protecting the life and well-being of the unborn. At the same time, Democrats argue they are unconstitutional intrusions by the government into a woman’s autonomy over her body and privacy.

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On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Greg Hertz spoke in favor of HB136 and said it is to sustain life.

HB136 would ban abortions after 20 weeks and doctors found violating the bill could be charged with a felony. Less than one percent of abortions performed in Montana at Planned Parenthood clinics were after 20 weeks of pregnancy, according to the organization.

“This bill is about human rights … our rights and the freedom to live should include an unborn child,” said Hertz, of Polson.

In opposition to the bill, Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, said the bill is harmful to physicians’ ability to care for their patients.

On a personal note, Democratic Sen. Janet Ellis of Helena said her niece received the fatal diagnosis at 18 weeks pregnant that the fetus was developing without a brain and could not live outside her niece’s body.

Luckily, Ellis said, her niece had access to appropriate healthcare, but she said that’s not the case for everyone.

“What if you can’t attend prenatal appointments because you can’t afford them?” Ellis said. “You live in a rural area without nearby (health)care? You can’t travel because of the weather or unreliable transportation?”

The bill, she said, would harm patients such as her niece who may receive a fatal diagnosis late into the pregnancy.

“Legislators should not be interfering with such a challenging and heartbreaking decision. This decision needs to be made by the individuals involved in their health care provider,” Ellis said.

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During the debate on HB171, opponents said it restricts women’s access to proper healthcare by barring them from using telehealth and creating unnecessary barriers around access to RU-486 — the drug cocktail used in chemical abortions.

But Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said the bill protects women by creating an “informed consent” system for women trying to access the drugs.

Aside from modifying how women can receive RU-486, the bill bans the delivery of the drug by mail, requires patients to fill out informed consent 24 hours before receiving the medication, mandates providers perform a follow-up in-person visit seven to 14 days after administering the drug, creates a registry of who gets the drugs, and directs doctors to tell their patients of the risk of death and “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

During previous testimony on HB136 and HB171, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana argued the bills violate Article 2, Section 10 of the Montana constitution, which provides Montanans the right to privacy and makes medical decisions free from government interference.

While HB140 would require a doctor to offer a patient seeking an abortion the opportunity to see an ultrasound, it would not require the patient to look at it.

Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier said the bill allows women seeking abortions the ability to make a more informed decision. He compared it to looking at an X-ray before receiving a joint replacement and said it gives patients insight into what the procedure would do.

“The more information patients receive about medical procedures done on them, the less anxiety they experience,” Regier said.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Democratic Sen. Christopher Pope of Bozeman said the bill is an unnecessary intrusion into a women’s relationship with their healthcare provider. Requiring a doctor to record whether a woman chooses to view the ultrasound is a “deep governmental intrusion into a woman’s right to privacy.”

“The ultrasound requirement is not medically necessary, nor does it benefit women’s health,” he said.

HB167 would ask the voters to approve the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, providing that infants born alive after a failed abortion are “legal persons.”

Supporters of the bill said it offers the protections and privileges provided by law to all infants, something opponents said is already in place.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena said there are already medical requirements for the rare cases the bill references. “This bill impacts doctors who are helping women in tragic and complicated circumstances and will create a chilling effect on the care of women who most need help.”

Billings Democratic Sen. Jen Gross said the bill is a political move that sends inflammatory and sensational language to the ballot and is an “effort to push a false claim.”

“Every one of the four bills we heard today are really about an agenda with a single objective to completely make inaccessible and illegal all abortion in the state of Montana,” she said.