HELENA — On mostly party-line votes with Republicans in favor, the Montana House Monday overwhelmingly endorsed four bills that would restrict or further regulate abortion in Montana.
In the wake of impassioned speeches to protect the unborn – or objections that the bills are unconstitutional -- all 67 House Republicans voted for three of the abortion bills and all 33 Democrats voted against those three. The fourth bill had one Democrat and one Republican cross over, but the final count was the same.
“It is heartbreaking to hear infanticide referred to as a practice of medicine,” said Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, a sponsor of one of the bills. “Before you is a bill that defines who we are as a state. … This goes to the question: Are we going to stand for life? Or are we going to literally throw it away?”
Democrats said the bills are essentially imposing one group’s religious views against abortion on everyone, and infringing on women’s and families’ right to make private medical decisions.
“Many of you promised limited government -- `freedom, liberty, individual choice,’ you proclaim,” said Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman. “But this bill would interfere with the sacred freedom of all Montana women and families to make health-care and religious choices together with their doctor, their clergy, their conscience and their god.”
Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature has passed similar bills in the past, only to see them vetoed by Democratic governors in the past 16 years.
But now, newly elected Gov. Greg Gianforte is a Republican who has described himself as “pro-life.”
The abortion bills face a final vote in the House before proceeding to the Senate for its consideration.
The House also advanced a pair of bills that would restrict transgender student-athletes and bar medical treatment for transgender youths in Montana.
Members voted 62-38 for House Bill 112, which says athletes at Montana schools and colleges can compete only on teams that align with their gender at birth.
But the margin was closer – 53-to-47 – on House Bill 113, which prohibits anyone under 18 from getting medical treatment or surgery for a sex-change. Fourteen Republicans joined all 33 Democrats in opposition.
“Do you think, as a parent, if I have a kid that’s going through puberty and struggling that I’m not going to get the best possible care I can afford for them?” said Rep. Geraldine Custer of Forsyth, one of the Republicans who voted against HB113. “I don’t think you can take a unique medical problem and solve it with a religiously charged political decision.”
The abortion bills endorsed Monday include:
HB136, which essentially bans abortions in Montana after 20 weeks of pregnancy, stating that a fetus can feel pain at that point.
Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, the sponsor of the bill, said that science has evolved since the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and that if the justices knew what doctors know now about pain experienced by the fetus, they would have ruled differently.
Opponents of the bill said abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy make up just 1.3 percent of all abortions, and usually involve a fetus with serious genetic disorders and that will likely die after birth.
Sixty-six Republicans and Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Crow Agency voted for the bill; 32 Democrats and Republican Rep. Brian Putnam of Kalispell voted against it.
HB171, which says abortion-inducing drugs can be dispensed only in person and bans their distribution on college campuses or schools in Montana.
Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence and the sponsor of the bill, said it reins in the “wild west of the abortion industry” by regulating pills that can cause widespread harm to women, if they’re not advised in person by a physician.
HB140, which would require that women seeking an abortion be given the opportunity to see an ultrasound or listen to the heartbeat of the fetus before they decide.
HB167, sponsored by Regier, would place a referendum before Montana voters in November 2022, on whether to approve a law that says any infant “born alive,” including after a botched abortion, is a legal person.
Opponents said the bill is not needed, because Montana law already protects infants that are born alive, and that it’s merely putting a “divisive and polarizing” issue before voters.
Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, the sponsor of the two transgender bills, said the first one – HB112 – would protect women’s school sports, by preventing transgender boys from competing as women.
Opponents called the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” and noted that the Montana High School Association, which regulates high school athletics, has never had an issue with transgender competitors.
On his HB113, Fuller also said it’s meant to protect children from undergoing sex-change operations or other decisions that could affect them for a lifetime, and that the decision should be left to them when they become adults.