HELENA, Mont. -- Four new proposed abortion restrictions passed the state House Tuesday in Montana, one of several states where GOP gains are lending more momentum to prohibitions on the procedure.
The bills come as President Joe Biden looks to change course nationally on the issue, though the Supreme Court has a conservative majority that's given hope to anti-abortion activists.
In Montana, GOP lawmakers are hoping to capitalize on the election of a Republican governor after 16 years of pro-abortion access Democratic governors.
The Montana bills largely echo legislation already passed in other Republican-controlled states — including a ban on abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of gestation; a requirement that health care providers give pregnant women the opportunity to view an ultrasound before performing an abortion; and a requirement that abortion pills be administered in-person rather than through telehealth. Another bill would ask voters to approve a requirement to care for fetuses born alive during abortion procedures.
Three of the Montana bills are repeats of similar measures vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last session. Current Gov. Greg Gianforte has promised to “defend life,” giving anti-abortion lawmakers and activists hope that the bills would be signed into law.
The bills, which passed the House largely along party lines, go next to the Montana Senate for consideration.
The votes came after the Biden administration released a statement last week saying he would seek to codify the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — establishing a nationwide right to abortion in federal law to protect it from court challenges.
The Montana bills are not as severe as measures proposed in other states, including a bill in Arkansas that would criminalize abortion except to save a pregnant woman's life. In South Carolina, a newly expanded GOP majority in the state Senate is seeking a ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — usually around six weeks after conception — except for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
Several other states have passed similar laws. While they have been blocked in courts so far, anti-abortion activists are buoyed by the appointment of scores of federal judges — including three Supreme Court justices — who are viewed as open to repealing or weakening Roe v. Wade.
In Kansas last week, Republican state House lawmakers voted in favor of a measure to overturn a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state's Bill of Rights, sending the bill to a debate in the state Senate.
A similar proposal failed last year, but elections left the Republican supermajority more conservative.
In Montana, Democratic lawmakers said the bill banning abortion in most situations after 20 weeks is an attempt by Republicans to politicize abortion. The measure would violate the state constitutional protections “no matter what happens with Roe v. Wade or the new Supreme Court,” said Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, a Helena Democrat.
Proponents of the bill said the measure would protect fetuses that are capable of feeling pain. But according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, fetuses are incapable of feeling pain until 24 weeks of gestation.
The bill would ban abortion starting 20 weeks after a pregnant woman's last menstrual period, except in cases of severe medical risks to the woman. Three other states have passed similar bans on abortion after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. But the law is only in effect in Mississippi, after the measures in Arizona and North Carolina were permanently prohibited by court order.
Montana groups that support access to abortion have threatened to sue the state if the bills are signed into law.
“Republicans have plowed ahead despite clear warnings that the bills are unconstitutional and will be challenged in court. They are prepared to unthinkingly commit the state to spending precious taxpayer dollars on unnecessary court battles to defend legally indefensible laws,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.