Yellowstone County judge extends block on abortion bills

The laws remain on hold until the judge makes a final ruling

By: - October 8, 2021 1:04 pm

Planned Parenthood signage is seen in the Financial District neighborhood of Manhattan on April 16, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A Yellowstone County District judge ruled on Thursday to extend a temporary block on a trio of freshly passed legislation aiming to restrict and regulate access to abortions in the state.

“[Planned Parenthood of Montana] and their patients will be irreparably harmed through the loss of their constitutional rights, thus the preservation of the status quo is necessary to prevent that harm,” Judge Michael Moses wrote in his order blocking the laws from going into effect.

The lawsuit challenging House Bills 136, 171 and 140 was brought by Planned Parenthood of Montana on Aug. 16. Respectively, the laws ban nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of gestational age, heavily restrict medical abortions, and require providers to ask patients seeking an abortion if they want to see an ultrasound. Planned Parenthood also challenged the constitutionality of HB229, which would ban federal exchanged health insurance plans from covering abortions in the state, but the law is not part of the preliminary injunction.

The laws were passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature this past session and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in April.  Planned Parenthood argued in the lawsuit the three bills violate constitutional privacy and equal rights protections.

“This is an important and hard-fought victory. We’re thrilled that the Montana District Court preliminarily blocked these unconstitutional laws, protecting Montanans’ access to safe, legal abortion,” said Martha Stahl, president and CEO, Planned Parenthood of Montana, in a statement.

In a statement to KTVH, Emilee Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, said Thursday’s order, “deprives women and unborn children of common-sense health protections.” According to the TV station, she added, “It’s not surprising that Planned Parenthood is attacking our laws, since no one benefits more from sub-standard health protections than abortionists and their businesses.”

Moses issued a temporary restraining order on the laws last week, just hours before the laws were set to go into effect. He was assigned the case following a last-minute request from the state asking Judge Gregory Todd to recuse himself over comments he made while hearing oral arguments on the case.

Moses extended that order on Thursday while he decides the constitutionality of the laws. In his order, Moses wrote he believes HB136, HB171 and HB140 are likely unconstitutional.

“HB136 — would ban abortions beginning at 20 weeks (and therefore, pre-viability) — is likely unconstitutional,” he wrote, saying it violates Article II, Section 10 of the state constitution, which protects women’s rights of “procreative autonomy.”

Addressing the telehealth ban in HB171, the judge said, “a medication abortion is a pre-viability abortion … Thus, the ban on using telehealth for medication abortion plainly infringes the right to privacy and must be justified by compelling state interest.”

As for HB140, which would require providers to offer abortion seekers the opportunity to view an ultrasound, Moses said he agrees with the plaintiff’s argument that it violates the right to equal protection and individual dignity.

“Plaintiffs have made out a prima facie case that HB140 violates the right to privacy, insofar as HB140 serves to stigmatize or discourage women from obtaining an abortion in Montana — a constitutionally protected right,” he said.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert 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. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.