Jonathan Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — A district court judge in Helena has agreed to delay a provision in a new state law that would require abortion clinics to be licensed by the state.

The provision was set to take effect on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

District Judge Chris Abbott granted a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of one section of House Bill 937.

HB 937 says no one can operate an abortion clinic without applying for and receiving a license from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

It also directs DPHHS to establish rules for operating a clinic – including things like staff qualifications, required equipment, the “architecture or layout of an abortion clinic,” and a requirement for regular inspections.

However, DPHHS has not yet come out with those rules, leaving clinics with no way of getting a license before the law takes effect.

Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula and All Families Healthcare in Whitefish sued over the law, claiming the restrictions were unnecessary and unfairly targeted abortion providers, as other private healthcare practices don’t have to follow them.

They said, without clear guidance from the state, they would be in a state of legal uncertainty after Oct. 1 – not knowing whether they could continue to perform abortions.

In his ruling, Abbott said DPHHS had acknowledged it’s difficult to enforce the law until the rules are in place. However, he said that there hadn’t been a specific declaration that the state would not enforce it, and that county attorneys might still attempt to prosecute clinics.

He said it was justifiable to put in a limited restraining order, allowing the state to continue the rulemaking process, but addressing the clinics’ concerns until a full hearing can be held.

He set a hearing for Oct. 30 on whether a preliminary injunction should be granted.

Abbott said this initial ruling was not intended to address the question of whether the state has a compelling interest in licensing abortion clinics.