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Nurses sue to strike down Montana law barring them from providing abortion

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HELENA -

Two advanced-practice nurses, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, filed suit Tuesday to strike down Montana’s law that allows only physicians and physician assistants to perform abortions.

One of the nurses – Helen Weems – is planning next month to help re-open a Whitefish clinic that had performed abortions but was severely damaged by vandalism in 2014. It was the only abortion provider in the Flathead Valley.

The suit seeks to allow the soon-to-be-opened All Families Healthcare clinic to perform abortions, said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana – as well as expand abortion services across the state.

“Out of our 56 counties, only seven percent have an abortion provider,” she told MTN News in an interview Tuesday. “Some Montanans have to travel more than 150 miles to reach an abortion provider.

“What this (lawsuit) would do is expand the pool of qualified health-care providers who can safely provide abortions under Montana law, which improves access.”

Attorneys for the ACLU of Montana and the Center for Reproductive Rights, based in New York, filed the lawsuit in state District Court in Helena.

The suit asks the court to void the law as an unconstitutional infringement on privacy rights and to block its enforcement while the case proceeds through court.

“Barring (advance-practice nurses) from providing abortion care within their scope of practice is inconsistent with Montana Supreme Court precedent,” the suit said. “Barring (them) from providing abortion care also contributes to and exacerbates limited access in the state.”

The suit names Attorney General Tim Fox and Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan as defendants.

A spokesman for Fox said Tuesday his office will review the lawsuit and respond accordingly.

Besides Weems, the other plaintiff is an unnamed nurse midwife who practices in Montana and provides procedures more complex than abortion, but who is barred from offering abortion services, the lawsuit said. She’s listed in the lawsuit as “Jane Doe.”

In 1999, the Montana Supreme Court struck down a 1995 state law passed to prohibit physician assistants from performing abortions in the state, restricting the practice of abortion only to physicians.

In that decision, the high court said the restriction violated the state’s fundamental right to privacy and that the state constitution guarantees the right for citizens to choose their own health-care providers.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday said the Supreme Court used the term health-care provider to refer to “any physician, physician assistant, nurse, nurse-practitioner or other professional” – and therefore, obtaining abortion services can’t be limited just to physicians and physician assistants.

A 2005 law passed by the Montana Legislature to allow only physician and physician assistants to perform abortions is “in defiance of the holding” by the Supreme Court’s 1999 decision, the suit said.

The ACLU also noted that the physician assistant targeted by the 1995 law – Susan Cahill – ran the All Families Healthcare clinic when it was vandalized in 2014 and will be working with Weems to reopen the clinic next month.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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