Ashley Nerbovig

On the ballot this election cycle is Legislative Referendum 131, a measure that advocates say is meant to prevent the killing of babies, and opponents say would force physicians to take actions that are not medically appropriate.

The referendum is described on ballots as the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. If passed by voters, the new law would establish penalties for health care providers if they did not provide necessary medical care and treatment to preserve the life of infants born alive, including infants born alive after an abortion. If a health care provider violated the act, the maximum punishment would be a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Causing the death of a premature baby is already illegal under federal and state law, said Tim Mitchell, a Missoula based maternal-fetal medicine specialist who opposes the referendum.

Mitchell cares for people experiencing high risk pregnancies. He’s had to tell patients with a wanted pregnancy that their baby might not survive for long past birth. While some patients decide to end the pregnancy, because it would be too hard to carry to term knowing the baby would die shortly after birth, Mitchell said some families want to continue the pregnancy.

“To deliver a live born baby,” Mitchell said. “To be able to hold them and say, ‘Goodbye.’”

During a September rally in Helena meant to show opposition to LR-131, Jenn Banna of Missoula said she experienced the scenario described by Mitchell. While pregnant with her daughter Anna, doctors told her the child’s brain hadn’t fully developed. Anna would not survive for long after delivery. But Banna opted to continue the pregnancy.

“The opportunity to snuggle and sing to her would not have been possible if she had been taken away immediately,” Banna said at the rally. “Anna Louise would have died in a different room, without me, robbing me of the opportunity of comforting and holding her during her short life.”

An advocate of the measure, Montana State Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, said she felt opponents of the referendum had twisted the intent of the bill. She said she would hope the bill wouldn’t be used to go after doctors who allowed their patients time with their dying baby.

“If a person is willing to carry a pregnancy knowing the baby might not live,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “No one in their right mind is going to take away their chance for those precious moments together.”

If the referendum passes, Sheldon-Galloway said maybe it was something that needed to be tweaked next session. She encouraged people to participate more during the session, to make sure lawmakers “get it right to start with.”

Montana State Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, carried the bill to put the law to voters during the 2021 Legislative Session. While he acknowledged a state law was in place to protect premature babies, Regier said it did not go far enough. He also took issue with the way the law allowed for exception for viability.

“We need to make it abundantly clear that here in Montana,” Regier said. “The protection of all life is available.”

If passed, Mitchell said it was important to note that some doctors have said they would consider leaving Montana due to the law.