Jonathan Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — The sponsors of a ballot measure that would specifically protect access to abortion in the state constitution have filed an objection to Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s proposed ballot statement for it.

The measure was submitted by the committee Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights (MSRR) and backed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.

It would add language to the state constitution, establishing “a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.”

Knudsen initially blocked the measure — informally called Ballot Issue 14 — from going forward, saying it violated a state requirement that unrelated constitutional changes be voted on separately.

Last week, the Montana Supreme Court overruled that decision and directed Knudsen to prepare a ballot statement for the measure – language that would go on a petition as supporters gather signatures and on the ballot if it qualifies.

MSRR submitted its own proposed statement, saying the measure “affirms the right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion,” and “prohibits the government from denying or burdening the right to abortion before fetal viability” or “when it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

Knudsen stated the supporters’ proposed ballot statement wasn’t a “true and impartial explanation of the proposal” because it “fails to give voters an accurate understanding of how the proposed initiative will change current law” and “leaves key terms undefined and leaves many terms to the subjective judgment of individual abortion providers.”

He then submitted his own proposed language, which said the measure “amends the Montana Constitution to allow post-viability abortions up to birth,” “leaves ‘fetal viability’ and ‘extraordinary medical measures’ to the subjective judgment of an abortion provider rather than objective legal or medical standards,” and “may increase the number of taxpayer-funded abortions.”

On Tuesday, MSRR filed a motion with the state Supreme Court, asking them to rule Knudsen’s statement was “argumentative, prejudicial, and inaccurate,” and to certify their proposed language instead.

They argued the Attorney General’s office was delaying the start of their signature gathering process and threatening their ability to qualify Ballot Issue 14 for the 2024 election.

“Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s ballot statement is deceptive and misleading,” said a joint statement from Akilah Deernose, executive director of the ACLU of Montana; Kiersten Iwai, executive director of Forward Montana; and Martha Fuller, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana. “Let’s be clear: after filing our original language nearly a year in advance of the 2024 election, the politically motivated attempts from the Attorney General to delay or outright stop Ballot Issue #14 are threatening Montana voters’ ability to have their voices heard on this critical abortion care rights initiative. The Attorney General’s strategy here is obvious and desperate: to force MSRR to go to Court again, causing more delay in hopes of denying Montanans the opportunity to secure their right to abortion.”

Once a ballot statement is approved, there will still be a 14-day period for a legislative committee to review the measure before signature gathering can begin. MSRR said in their filing that it would be “virtually impossible” for them to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the 2024 ballot if they begin collecting them after May 1.

In a statement to MTN, a spokesperson for Knudsen’s office defended his handling of the ballot statement.

“The attorney general followed the correct procedures to revise the ballot statement and did so in a timely manner and in accordance with the Montana Supreme Court’s directives,” they said. “The revised ballot statement accurately portrays to Montana voters how the proposed initiative would change current law, which the proponents’ statement failed to do.”