Abortion review panel goes down; lawmakers to study Medicaid coverage of abortions

The study is an amendment to House Bill 2

Gov. Greg Gianforte, right is sworn in on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in the Governor's Reception Room of the Montana State Capitol. (Photo by Thom Bridge of the Helena Independent Record)

An effort to create a panel to review Medicaid payment reimbursements to women who receive an abortion was watered down on Wednesday to a study bill after its companion bill was voted down by the Senate.

Committee lawmakers unanimously approved the amendment to House Bill 2 — the state budget bill — during a Wednesday hearing. The day before, Republican lawmakers on the committee approved $90,000 during the next biennium to create a panel that would have investigated claims by women looking to have their abortions covered.

But because the Senate voted down the amendment’s companion bill, House Bill 686, the committee reversed its Tuesday decision opting instead for a study on the “history, utilization data, policies, rules, and definitions for Medicaid paid abortions.”

The Senate as a whole also voted to approve HB2, with the added amendment. The House has yet to vote.

Helena Democrat, Sen. Janet Ellis, who sat on the committee, said she likes the change.

“It won’t affect individual women’s medical decisions anymore. There will not be a tribunal of three partisan doctors judging what another doctor did, that is not going to happen anymore, what is going to happen is basically an interim study,” Ellis said.

In addition to the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the woman or if the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest, Montana has a constitutional requirement stemming from the Jeannette R. V. Ellery ruling that the state’s Medicaid program must cover abortions if the patient’s doctor deems it was medically necessary.

Because of the additional state constitutional requirement, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said it is “prudent” to get the study done.

For pro-choice advocates, Wednesday’s decision not to move forward with the review panel is largely overshadowed by the success of Republican-backed bills that they say unconstitutionally restrict access to reproductive healthcare.

Three of those bills — House Bills 136,140, and 171 — were signed into law by pro-life Gov. Greg Gianforte on Monday.

Respectively, the bills ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestational age, require a woman to be offered the option to view an ultrasound before receiving an abortion and require informed consent to receive a medical abortion.

“Life is precious and ought to be protected. Today, I proudly signed into law bills to protect the life of our most vulnerable, the unborn,” Gianforte said at Monday’s bill signing broadcast on his Facebook page.

“There were many who served in this building before us who champion the unborn, people who worked hard to advance the cause of life. Unfortunately, their efforts were vetoed. But not today,” Gianforte said, which was met with applause from more than a dozen Republican lawmakers.

In marathon hearings on the bills, supporters consistently showed up and, along with lawmakers, and argued the legislation is necessary to protect Montana’s unborn children.

But opponents repeatedly warned the bills might not be constitutional as they interpret them to violate Montanans’ right to privacy established in Article 2 Section 10 of the state’s Constitution.

With the bills signed into law, Alex Rate, legal director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, said there would be court challenges.

“Whether it’s one of our ally organizations or us, we will see them in court,” he said. He called the bills an “unprecedented attack on a person’s right to receive healthcare from a provider of their own choosing.”  Adding, “the courts have interpreted our constitution to grant broader rights than the federal constitution, and over and over again, our judiciary has zealously guarded the right to privacy.”

Pro-choice advocates have also taken issue with HB167, sponsored by Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, which would send a referendum to voters to decide on adopting the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act” in 2022. The bill would effectively ban all abortions.

Martha Stahl, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Montana, said the bill is a way to keep abortion at the forefront through the election cycle leading up to 2022.

“The Regiers and the Montana GOP decided it was more important for them to elevate a member of their own party than to pass a policy desired by the community who wants to see abortion banned,” she wrote in a recent opinion column.

HB136 sponsor and Great Falls Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway praised pro-life supporters at Monday’s bill signing.

“I am a Montanan, woman, a mother, and a grandmother … let’s protect those little ones who can’t speak for themselves … we are their voice,” she said.