Backers of Abortion Initiative Sue Attorney General Over Proposed Ballot Language 

The group says AG Austin Knudsen’s description is ‘argumentative, prejudicial, and inaccurate’

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
Hundreds gathered for an abortion rights march in downtown Kalispell on May 14, 2022. It coincided with many protests around the country over the weekend after a leaked majority draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court revealed a vote to overturn Roe V. Wade. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A group backing an initiative to enshrine specific protections for abortion access in Montana’s Constitution is again in court against Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen, this time over how Knudsen is proposing to describe the initiative on signature petitions and ballots. 

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, the group behind the initiative, filed a motion with the state Supreme Court on March 26 asking it to certify its proposed ballot language and to invalidate Knudsen’s, which the group describes as “argumentative, prejudicial, and inaccurate.” 

Knudsen’s office has until the close of business on March 29 to respond.

The proposed ballot initiative would insert language in the Montana Constitution stating, among other provisions, that “there is a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion” that “shall not be denied or burdened unless justified by a compelling government interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”

Abortion in Montana remains legal thanks to the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. State, which tied the right to an abortion to the Montana Constitution’s expansive privacy protections. But the Constitution does not explicitly shield access to the procedure, and a future court could overturn that precedent. 

“Just because abortion is currently protected under rulings made by the Montana Supreme Court, that does not mean abortion rights are secured,” Chris Coburn, a spokesperson for the political arm of Montana’s Planned Parenthood chapter, told Montana Free Press last November.

Knudsen, who has the authority to review the legality of ballot initiatives, blocked the proposal in January, determining that the proposed language would violate Montana law barring ballot initiatives from “logrolling” separate issues into one decision for voters. Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights went to court and obtained a ruling overturning Knudsen’s determination. 

The language that MSRR proposed to describe the initiative on signature-gathering petitions and on the ballot says the measure “affirms the right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.”

Knudsen’s office said that language does not accurately reflect the implications of the initiative. His proposed alternative says the initiative “leaves ‘fetal viability’ and ‘extraordinary medical measures’ to the subjective judgment of an abortion provider rather than objective legal or medical standards,” among other descriptions. 

In MSRR’s petition to the court, attorney Raph Graybill wrote that Knudsen’s language fails to describe the actual provisions of the initiative and instead presents a list of “misleading, argumentative, prejudicial and false serial hypotheses” about the initiative’s effects. 

Once the ballot statement question is settled, a legislative interim committee has 14 days to review the initiative before backers can begin gathering signatures, which are due to county election officials on June 21. 

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.