Gov. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines embrace at the 2022 March for Life in Helena, Montana (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/Daily Montanan)
Several top Republican officials joined more than a hundred people at the Capitol in Helena on Friday for the March for Life, celebrating a year of long-stalled progress for the anti-abortion cause in Montana and gearing up for the possibility of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade later in the year.
Gov. Greg Gianforte, Congressman Matt Rosendale and U.S. Senator Steve Daines, all Republicans, addressed the crowd with a similar message: Following 16 years of Democratic governors in Montana, 2021 presented a turning point. And with litigation coming out of Mississippi that could have major implications for the 1973 Supreme Court decision that shielded a woman’s right to seek an abortion from many government restrictions, the work to snuff the practice out entirely was just beginning.
“For too long in Montana, your voices haven’t been heard in the governor’s office,” Gianforte said. “For too long, measures protecting life have been met with the veto pen.”
But that changed under the tenure of Gianforte, who called for abortion bills to come to his desk early in his term. Seven such pieces of legislation passed in the 2021 session, along with dozens of other GOP-backed bills that would not have crossed the finish line under Democratic Govs. Steve Bullock and Brian Schweitzer. These include bills to ban abortion after 20 weeks gestational age — a point at which supporters contend a fetus can feel pain — and to require in-person doctors’ visits to receive the prescriptions necessary for a medication abortion, among others.
“Let me state the obvious: The cause for life enjoyed a banner year in 2021,” the governor said.
Pastors and congregations, the Knights of Columbus, political organizations, student groups and Helena-area pro life groups were all gathered in attendance, cheering at each of these pronouncements.
“I know that you are all going to be joining with me to make sure that we maintain the pressure politically, and the pressure prayerfully, so we can bring an end to abortion in this country,” Rosendale said.
Four of the abortion bills Gianforte signed last year were met with quick legal challenges, with plaintiff Planned Parenthood of Montana arguing they violate the robust privacy protections in the state constitution. The right to privacy and right to an abortion in Montana were effectively tied together in the state Supreme Court’s unanimous 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. State, where the judges ruled that a woman’s right to procreative autonomy could not be abridged by the government. For now, that ruling will protect at least some access to abortion in the state even if Roe falls.
Three of the bills — the 20-week ban, the medication abortion restriction and a bill requiring doctors to offer patients the opportunity to view an ultrasound of the fetus before getting an abortion — are on pause with preliminary injunctions issued by a judge in Yellowstone County District Court while the litigation plays out. A fourth law banning insurance sold on the federal exchange from covering abortion was not part of the injunction order. Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, has appealed the injunction orders to the state Supreme Court. He did not make an appearance at the rally.
“We still have much to do as a country, and here in Montana,” Gianforte said. “Those who oppose our mission to protect life are working to undo all we have worked so hard for. Frustrated they can’t count on the veto anymore, Planned Parenthood has taken to the courts.
Indeed, much of Friday’s event was about the judiciary. Whereas previous March for Life rallies at the Capitol focused more on the law-making and law-signing branches of government, the battle in Montana, where Republicans are nearing a bicameral legislative supermajority and hold the Governor’s Office, has shifted to the courts. After the speakers concluded, the crowd followed a local Knights of Columbus branch to the steps of the state Department of Justice building, which houses the high court, instead of marching the circumference of the Capitol as had been done in the past.
There, Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation led the crowd in prayer after calling on the court to lift the injunctions on the three abortion bills. The Family Foundation, led by former lawmaker Laszloffy, has been active at the Capitol on abortion issues for years. The Gianforte Family Foundation has historically been a major benefactor of the group.
“We’re here as the pro-life community to say enough is enough,” Laszloffy said.
He also called for the courts to allow a 2011 law halted by litigation requiring parental notification before a minor receives an abortion to go into effect.
At the federal level, a U.S. Supreme Court reshaped by a series of conservative appointments in the Donald Trump administration has signaled it may uphold a Mississippi state law banning abortion after 15 weeks, bucking precedent established in Roe v. Wade. Whether a decision in that case — expected in June or July — will fully overturn Roe remains to be seen, but if it does, the ability to regulate abortions would effectively revert back to states.
“When Roe and (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, another precedent-setting abortion ruling) is overturned, Montana is ready to take control and protect the lives of the unborn,” Sen. Daines said.
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