State Republicans Target Social Issues at Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republican lawmakers pitched new plans Monday to intervene in divorce, target abortion in the Montana Constitution and help parents deal with local sex education issues.

The latest round of GOP-backed measures taking on social issues follows Friday’s rejection on the full House floor of a plan to mandate doctors show women seeking an abortion an ultrasound before the procedure.

Early in the session, Republican leaders holding big majorities in the Legislature largely left social issues off their priority list. But rank-and-file members have been bringing forward plenty of individual proposals dealing with the often-polarizing issues.

Abortion may be the most contentious off all.

The House Judiciary Committee looked at a plan Monday that would change the Montana Constitution to recognize that life starts at conception — a move opponents argue is an attempt to ban abortion with future changes to state law.

It would take support from two-thirds of all lawmakers to place the issue on the ballot for voters to decide. Even if every Republican voted for it, the measure would still fall four votes short of getting the 100 needed.

Despite the long odds, opponents and supporters argued at length over the matter.

Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, said fetuses are not recognized as people only because doing so would be inconvenient. She argued the situation is similar to when slaves were treated as less than human to justify stealing their labor from them.

She said her proposed change to the Constitution would settle, legally, when life starts.

“I saw we draw the line where science and common sense demands: at conception,” Warburton said.

Christian conservatives backing the plan urged Republicans to keep advancing the anti-abortion and other such measures despite the lack of formal support from leadership.

“We should keep pushing this even if some don’t feel this is the appropriate time,” said Harris Himes, a Hamilton pastor and spokesman for the Montana Eagle Forum.

But opponents pointed out the perceived hypocrisy of Republicans promising limited government and personal responsibility and then delivering more government rules.

“What do we get? More interference in our personal lives,” said Stan Frasier, of Helena. “This is about using the Constitution to impose someone else’s nutty religious views on the rest of us.”

Opponents said that granting legal rights from the moment of conception would give the state the obligation to protect that fetus from all decisions made by the mother during the pregnancy and would conflict with the constitutional right to privacy held by the mother.

“This government would have the right to interfere with every single decision in that pregnancy in order to protect that fetus,” said Niki Zupanic, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

The House Judiciary Committee also was gripped by a proposal to require at least 10 hours of pre-divorce counseling for couples with children. House Majority Leader Tim McGillvray, of Billings, said society will crumble without marriage and it’s too easy to get a divorce.

He said single-parent households lead to poverty that cost the state a lot of money.

Opponents argued the “unfunded government mandate” throws up an unnecessary impediment to failed marriages. They said Montanans can determine for themselves when their marriage is over, and they pointed out that the poor already have a hard enough time paying for a divorce without having to also pay for counseling.

“These people are trying to seek legal recognition of something that has already happened: the end of their marriage,” said Ed Higgins, with the Montana Legal Services Association.

Another GOP-backed proposal up for debate Monday follows controversy in Helena schools over a sex education policy. The measure would let parents withdraw their children from sex education classes without penalizing the child for missing class.

It would also require that parents are given notice two days in advance for any proposed sex education.

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