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Montana lawmakers advance bills revising state abortion laws

Montana House
Posted at 5:33 PM, Mar 30, 2023

HELENA - Montana lawmakers have been debating another series of bills this week that seek to tighten the state’s abortion laws.

On Thursday, the House gave initial approval to a bill that would prevent state money from covering abortions except in limited cases.

House Bill 862, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, passed 62-38 in a preliminary vote, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

HB 862 would block using state funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the woman’s life is in danger.

It would bring Montana’s laws in line with the longstanding federal policy called the Hyde Amendment.

Montana has had a different standard. Since a 1995 court ruling, the state has used its own general funds to cover abortions that have been determined to be “medically necessary,” even if the mother’s life isn’t endangered.

Hopkins said the broader abortion debate shouldn’t play into HB 862.

“While we’re having that discussion, as knockdown, drag-out as it may be, as strong as our personally held beliefs may be, the tax dollars should not be going to pay for elective abortion services,” he said. “I don't think that's unreasonable — it certainly hasn't been unreasonable for the better part of the last 40 years.”

Analysts from the governor’s budget office estimated the bill would affect about 700 Medicaid-covered abortions a year and reduce state spending by about $300,000 a year.

Opponents of HB 862 said its language might go beyond simply Medicaid and affect state and local employees on self-administered insurance plans — though Hopkins said he disagreed with that interpretation. Opponents also argued the bill went against the 1995 ruling.

“The state cannot legally, selectively withhold certain benefits from otherwise qualified people simply because the state does not favor those benefits,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula.

The fiscal analysis on HB 862 also notes that it conflicts with House Bill 544, sponsored by Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, which passed the House earlier this month.

That bill would have required prior authorization before Medicaid covers an abortion — codifying a rule adopted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

On Thursday morning, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on House Bill 968, sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell — the committee’s chair.

It would revise the state law requiring parental consent before a minor gets an abortion — a provision that has been blocked by a state district court as part of a long-running lawsuit. The committee voted to advance the bill later on Thursday.

HB 968 would change the law to require that a parent or legal guardian be “adequately informed and consulted regarding the minor's decision to seek an abortion,” and that abortion providers give them information on “the risks and complications associated with abortion and pregnancy.”

Supporters argued the court had said the state had a legitimate interest in protecting minors, and this bill could do that in a way that meets constitutional muster.

“The parental consultation components of the bill are narrowly tailored to promote the compelling state interests that have already been recognized by the court,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation.

Opponents of the bill said even this would be too much government intrusion.

“There are times when consulting, notifying or requiring consent of a parent or guardian will put the pregnant teen in danger,” said Quinn Leighton, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. “It is imperative that we protect their rights and safety. Every single young person who is harmed by this bill is one too many.”

Opponents also criticized the quick timeline for hearing and considering HB 968. The bill was introduced on Tuesday, assigned to committee on Wednesday and scheduled for a hearing the next morning.

The Legislature is approaching another key deadline. Bills that appropriate money or affect state revenue have to make it through at least their first chamber by Tuesday in order to keep moving forward.

Also on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced House Bill 937, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, which would require the state to license and regulate abortion clinics.