Senate Judiciary Democrats walk out in protest over abortion rhetoric

By: - March 28, 2023 8:34 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena shortly after sunrise on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

The mention of “satanists” was the final straw for Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, during Tuesday morning’s hearings regarding conservative abortion proposals in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t understand how Satanism is relevant to this bill or this discussion today,” Gross said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell responded, “Let’s find out.”

Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, had asked proponent Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation about the religious rights of Satanists and if they consider the right to an abortion part of their religious beliefs.

This exchange was during a hearing for a bill from House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, that would restrict access to surgical abortions. The two bills discussed later during the hearing were sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, regarding a 24-week abortion ban and additional reporting to the state from providers who dispense abortion pills like mifepristone and misoprostol.

In response to Emrich’s question, however, Gross got up to leave.

“I’m going to recommend that the minority not participate in the remainder of this discussion if we’re going to Satanism,” she said. The three other Democrats on the committee, as well as Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, followed.

Before joining fellow Democrats, Sen. Andrea Olsen of Missoula said although the bill’s content was inflammatory, the committee should not use language intended to inflame debate.

The Satanic Temple has sued states with anti-abortion laws including Idaho and Indiana claiming the ban infringes on the right for members seeking an “abortion ritual,” therefore infringing on their religious rights, as reported by the Associated Press.

Abortion remains legal in Montana under the state Supreme Court decision Armstrong vs. State.

Prior to Emrich’s question on Satanism, Gross made objections to terms like “barbaric” being associated with abortion during proponent testimony, and asking those testifying to stick to the contents of the bill.

Chairman Regier, who said proponents were “entitled to their opinion,” at one point told Gross that she had been “interrupting a lot of people.”

Olsen said laws are already on the books against infanticide, and she was concerned about the misinformation being spread.

After Democrats left the room and following the closing on Speaker Regier’s bill, Flowers requested a brief recess, and legislators met in Sen. Regier’s office.

In the discussion, Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said the rhetoric in the hearing was “cruel to all these people that are out there” listening, according to audio of the discussion provided by Montana Public Radio.

Chairman Regier said the inflammatory rhetoric was coming from both sides. He said Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, went off of the bill when she spoke in opposition, and he didn’t stop her from continuing to speak.

“If I were a person who had had an abortion, I would hear ‘You are a murderer,’” O’Brien said. “And not only are you a murderer, you dismember, and you cut these things apart.”

Regier asked if that was true.

“I don’t believe it’s true. Clearly you do,” O’Brien responded. “And that’s the difference of opinion.”

O’Brien said she would like to see an environment where all opinions are respected.

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, said he understood where anyone who has had an abortion could feel that way.

“But I’m thinking of those people who survived,” he said, adding he knew two abortion survivors.

Flowers said he attributed the reaction from the caucus to a feeling that Chairman Regier’s judgment has not been fair to both parties.

“I think your responsibility as chairman, what we all expect, is it has to be even-handed for all witnesses, and no matter whether objections are coming from Republicans or Democrats, that you handle them fairly and similarly,” Flowers said.

Following the meeting, both Republicans and Democrats resumed the hearings for Sheldon-Galloway’s bills.

The committee did not immediately take action on any of the abortion related legislation on Tuesday.

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected to reflect the Satanic Temple is the organization involved in litigation surrounding abortion bans.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.