Manhattan won’t move ahead with ‘sanctuary city’ ordinance to ban abortion after public outcry

By: - February 10, 2023 6:15 pm

(Photo by Getty Images).

The town of Manhattan won’t move forward with an ordinance to become a “Sanctuary for the Unborn.”

Thursday night, Mayor Glen Clements broke a tied vote on a motion to direct the town lawyer to draft an ordinance for Manhattan to essentially ban abortion, Clements said Friday.

Clements opposed the motion for a 3-2 outcome. He said he believes it’s the first time a city or town in Montana has considered such an ordinance.

“I will say that I’ve never seen the town hall that full,” Clements said. “Every seat was taken, and every square inch of standing room was taken.”

Abortion is legal in Montana with some restrictions. 

The mayor said roughly 40 people commented, and by his tally, roughly seven to one opposed any ordinance that would restrict abortion.

Councilor Josh Powell requested the sample ordinance from Texas be placed on the agenda. His comments via remote access Thursday were difficult to discern, and he could not be reached Friday via email.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn abortion protections in Roe vs. Wade has spurred related state actions against abortion.

In Montana, for example, Senate Bill 154 would exclude abortion from the constitution’s right to privacy; it passed the Senate late last month and has been transmitted to the House.

But the fight over abortion has started taking place in cities and towns as well.

On its website, an organization called Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn said 65 cities and two counties in the U.S. have adopted ordinances banning abortion. Most are in Texas, but the organization said it can help craft a measure that is right for a particular jurisdiction.

(The Guttmacher Institute notes abortion is now banned in Texas with limited exception.)

“Having the right ordinance for your city is only part of the process,” the website said. “There must be strong support from those in the community who live within the city limits.”

In Manhattan, those who supported the ordinance generally spoke in favor of saving the babies, said Clements, mayor for the last five years.

He paraphrased comments from supporters: “They’ve murdered babies, and we can’t let that happen in Manhattan.”

The Montana Constitution protects the right to privacy. In Armstrong vs. State of Montana, the Montana Supreme Court said the right to privacy protects the right to procreative autonomy, including abortion.

Clements said he voted against the ordinance for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, he said the town attorney advised the council that the sample ordinance as written would violate the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy along with case law dealing with abortion.

In response to a question, the lawyer also said an ordinance written to try to comply with Montana law would essentially be meaningless, Clements said.

He said the subject of the sample ordinance came up Monday, and he anticipated public comment might be more closely split. But he said it wasn’t.

The opposition — mostly from locals — influenced him.

“There was so much public comment and outrage against this,” Clements said.

At the same time, he said he anticipates a local abortion measure will come up again. He said three of the councilors talked about whether a different approach might work instead of the “sanctuary city” idea.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some abortion-related item on the agenda in the future,” he said.

Although Clements voted down the idea to pursue the ordinance, he wanted to explain the reason he placed it on the agenda in the first place.

The mayor said some people were mad it was up for discussion at all, but he said Powell requested the agenda item, and Powell has the right to express his views. 

“No matter what my feelings are about it, I felt it was my duty to allow his freedom of speech and (let him) talk about whatever he chose to talk about,” Clements said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.