Northwest Montana Abortion Providers Sue State over Licensure Requirements

Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic and Whitefish’s All Families Healthcare filed a lawsuit challenging a law that would require abortion providers to be licensed and regulated by the state’s the Department of Public Health and Human Services

By Denali Sagner
All Families Healthcare in Whitefish. Beacon file photo

Independent abortion providers Blue Mountain Clinic and All Families Healthcare on Friday filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana and the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) seeking to block the enforcement of a new state law that would require abortion clinics to obtain licensure through DPHHS.

The lawsuit was filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Dechert, LLP on behalf of Blue Mountain Clinic, All Families Healthcare and Helen Weems, the founder of and sole clinician at All Families Healthcare, based in Whitefish.

“Blue Mountain has been providing abortion care since 1977, and we have been caring for our patients in our current facility for nearly thirty years,” Nicole Smith, executive director of Blue Mountain Clinic, said in a press release. “State lawmakers have no reason for overregulating our facility other than their ultimate motive of trying to shut down the clinic. We refuse to stand by and let politicians interfere in the delivery of safe and common healthcare.” 

The legislation, House Bill 937, mandates licensure and inspection of abortion clinics by DPHHS, and requires DPHHS to adopt administrative rules for the operation of abortion clinics, including rules that govern staff qualifications, sanitation standards, the “architecture or layout of an abortion clinic,” and the establishment of annual training by law enforcement on “identifying and assisting women who are coerced into an abortion or who are victims of sex trafficking.”

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, the bill’s sponsor, has characterized the legislation as a way to elevate the regulation of abortion providers to the same standards as other healthcare facilities in Montana.

“I’m asking in this bill for a once-a-year inspection, unless there is a reason for them to come into the facility. Dental clinics are inspected, emergency care clinics are inspected, eye care clinics are inspected. I own a restaurant and I’m inspected all the time for safety, and I don’t think we’re asking for a whole lot,” Sheldon-Galloway said during a March House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Both Sheldon-Galloway and DPHHS declined the Beacon’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

The clinicians’ lawsuit, however, describes the legislation as “another legislative effort to target abortion care for unique and additional restriction.” Plaintiffs allege that the law would act as a blanket ban on abortion when it goes into effect on Oct. 1, as DPPHS had yet to outline regulations for the licensure of abortion clinics as required under the legislation.

“[House Bill 937] directs [DPHHS] to promulgate regulations about the process and requirements across 15 categories for ‘abortion clinic’ licensure. DPHHS has yet to even propose regulations under HB 937, which takes effect October 1, 2023, making compliance with the Act by its effective date impossible,” the court filing reads.

Plaintiffs also argue that the law violates Montanans’ constitutionally protected right to an abortion under the 1972 state constitution, as ruled in the 1999 Montana Supreme Court ruling Armstrong v. State.

“Abortion care is already subject to government oversight and regulation, and it is incredibly safe and necessary health care. Yet abortion providers like myself have faced relentless attacks for providing care to our communities. This newest attack has nothing to do with patient safety, it is designed to harass us and our patients,” Weems said in the press release.