HELENA, Mont. – For three hours Tuesday morning, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee heard emotionally charged testimony about two controversial bills that limit access to abortion in the state.
The first, House Bill 136, would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in cases of emergency.
Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, sponsored the bill. She said during her opening remarks that legislators should focus on the unborn fetus’ rights, rather than those of the parents.
“Stay focused on the testimonies that talk about the main issue of this bill: the child in the womb, and the ability to feel pain,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “And not so much on the father and the mother’s rights.”
Opponents said the bill would set a dangerous precedent for Montana.
Alanna Wulf spoke on behalf of Big Sky 55+, which advocates for Montanans 55 and older and future generations.
“Attempts to undermine Roe v. Wade harm women,” Wulf said, “and take away their bodily autonomy and self actualization.”
The bill drew 17 proponents and 8 opponents.
Some supporters of the bill said it is too weak. Carolyn Truscott, a member of Pro-Life Helena, asked legislators to be less cautious.
“I believe any legal restriction could – and should – be used to circumvent an abortion,” Truscott said. “Abortion should be unthinkable.”
Jeff Laszloffy, the president of the Montana Family Foundation, said that the bill would signal to the Supreme Court that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
“But until it does, we’ll continue to chip around the edges to save the lives of as many women and children as possible,” Laszloffy said.
The bill’s opponents were equally as charged.
Laurel Hesse spoke on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, and started her testimony by acknowledging how difficult speaking before legislators about a subject like abortion can be.
“I have it easy. I just have to talk about the law,” she said.
Hesse said the ACLU has concerns about the constitutionality of HB 136. Namely, their argument hinges on the sections of the Montana constitution dealing with privacy and bodily autonomy.
“The Montana Supreme Court, in Armstrong v. State, held that the constitutional right to privacy in Montana ‘broadly guarantees each individual the right to make medical judgements affecting her or his bodily integrity and health,” Hesse said.
She also pointed out that every abortion ban that has reached the circuit courts has been struck down.
The second bill before the House Judiciary Committee was House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence. The bill would restrict access to abortion-inducing drugs.
Women seeking a chemical abortion would be required to visit a doctor in-person to receive a review, and would have to go to follow-up visits. Abortion-inducing drugs would also not be allowed in schools, including on college campuses.
Greef said the bill is not an attempt to criminalize abortion, but rather to protect women from what she says are dangerous drugs.
Opponents to the bill pointed out that the rate of complications from chemical abortions is lower than that of surgical abortions.
Susan Liebel spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion political lobby. She warned the committee of allowing “DIY abortions” on college campuses, and said that the bill would protect women.
“The reality is that the dorm bathroom is the new abortion clinic,” Liebel said.
Kelsen Young is the executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She strongly disagreed with the idea that the bill protects women. She said it would strip women of autonomy over their own bodies.
“House Bill 171 measures up to be one of the most offensive and hurtful pieces of anti-choice legislation I have seen,” Young said. “And I have been in the Montana State Capitol for almost 20 years.”
The committee is expected to vote on these bills and other controversial bills dealing with transgender youth Friday.
James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.