GOP Lawmakers Vote to Oppose Constitutional Abortion Rights Measure

Signature gathering to put CI-128 on the ballot is underway after months of legal sparring; minority party leadership on Thursday called the hearing a “sham” that was “manufactured” by Republicans

By Mara Silvers, Montana Free Press
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, pictured in 2015 when he served in the House. Beacon file photo

Republican lawmakers on Thursday convened a hearing to discuss the constitutional abortion rights initiative that could appear on the November ballot, despite an April court order finding that the Legislature’s consideration would have no bearing on CI-128’s signature-gathering campaign.

The hearing before the Law and Justice Interim Committee was not attended by any Democratic lawmakers and hardly any supporters of the constitutional initiative to explicitly protect abortion rights in Montana. But Republicans and members of the public used the opportunity to oppose the proposal and criticize how it advanced to the signature-gathering phase without a maximum 14-day review by a legislative committee.

“Legislative process is in there so the public has the opportunity to speak,” Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, told the committee during public comment. “We expect equal justice from our Supreme Court and from all our courts. My question is why? Why is this one getting treated differently?”

At a Tuesday event hosted by the group sponsoring CI-128, Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, campaign organizers said they would not attend Thursday’s hearing.

“We are focused now, fully and totally, on getting this qualified [for the ballot],” said Martha Fuller, head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. The group, along with the ACLU of Montana and Forward Montana, is one of the campaign’s member groups. “I think we’ve seen a lot of theater so far around this ballot measure, and we are just ready to get to work and leave the theater up to politicians.”

The proposal has been the subject of months of litigation initiated by MSRR after being blocked in January by Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen. The Montana Supreme Court ruled against Knudsen in March and April, finding that the proposal was legally sufficient and could advance to signature-gathering. 

But the court did not approve ballot statements drafted by the petitioners or Knudsen intended to describe the initiative to voters. Rather, the court found both statements lacking in detail and accuracy and opted to write its own one-paragraph synopsis

The court also found that because Knudsen originally found the proposal “legally insufficient” rather than “sufficient,” a legislative committee review was not triggered. 

In the case of other recent ballot proposals, a legislative committee has considered the initiative text and voted on whether to approve or disapprove the measure. The outcome of that vote has then been included on the signature-gathering petition created by the Montana secretary of state for voters’ reference.

After the recent Supreme Court rulings on CI-128, the Legislature subpoenaed the petition and related documents from the secretary of state to initiate its own review, even as Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights was allowed to begin gathering signatures. 

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, a member of the committee considering the proposal on Thursday, asked legislative attorney Julianne Burkhardt how a vote would impact the ongoing signature campaign.

“The court said that we don’t need to have this meeting, yet in law we do,” Regier said. “The organizations that are bringing this initiative, if they’re gathering signatures now, will those, I don’t know, will they be held in limbo? How will that be viewed if signatures were gotten before this committee acts on this initiative?” 

“Technically, based on what the Supreme Court said, there is no obligation to have this meeting,” Burkhardt said. “In any event, the Legislature has broad investigative powers with which to look into all sorts of matters, including initiatives.”

Regier sought additional clarity: “The result of this committee’s vote — how and when will that be attached to the initiative?” 

“Madam Chair, Sen. Regier, it won’t be,” Burkhardt replied.

The six Republicans on the committee ultimately voted not to approve the proposal, with two Democrats absent. In a statement Thursday morning, minority party leadership called the hearing a “sham” that was “manufactured” by Republicans.

“Reproductive freedom, including the right to access abortion care, is broadly popular among Montanans, and this initiative would explicitly protect those rights in the Montana Constitution. We will not participate in Republicans’ attempts to keep this initiative away from the voters,” said the statement from House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman.

More than two dozen people spoke in opposition to the proposal Thursday morning. Some, including Derek Oestreicher, a lawyer for the Montana Family Foundation, cast CI-128 as a carte blanche expansion of abortion legality in the state. 

“This initiative is about unlimited abortion. This initiative will increase taxpayer-funded abortions. This initiative will preclude regulation of post-viability abortions anytime a quote-unquote health care professional deems the abortion necessary,” Oestreicher said. “This is a radical expansion of abortion in Montana. Please vote no.”

Several opponents described CI-128 as vague and asserted that, if approved by voters, the amendment would allow any medical provider, such as dental hygienists, to provide abortions without government regulation. The initiative’s text, however, allows government restrictions that address a “medically acknowledged, bona fide health risk to a pregnant patient,” and says nothing about eliminating the medical licensing boards that regulate health care providers. 

Some lawmakers used Thursday’s hearing to speak against abortion in general.

“I find it interesting that we call bacteria ‘life’ on Mars, but yet a heartbeat on Earth isn’t one,” said Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings. “I believe in women’s rights. I believe they have the right to choose. They had several choices to make before this all happened,” he continued, seemingly referring to pregnancy.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Fuller said the hearing made it clear why the constitutional amendment was necessary.

“Extreme politicians have made it clear that they will do everything they can — including misleading and deceiving voters like they did today — to ban abortion in Montana,” the statement said. “This ridiculous hearing demonstrates why moving forward with the amendment to secure the reproductive rights that Montanans currently have in the State Constitution is so critical and urgent.”

The CI-128 campaign has until June 21 to submit more than 60,000 signatures from registered voters to county election administrators. Signature collection must meet a minimum threshold in 40 of Montana’s House districts.

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