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Constitutional amendment to ban abortion in Montana comes up short

(Annisa Keith illustration)

HELENA — A proposed constitutional amendment that would essentially ban abortion in Montana has failed to get enough legislative votes to be placed before voters in 2022.

The Montana Senate on Wednesday voted 29-21 for House Bill 337, but that count gave the measure only 95 total votes in the Legislature – five short of the necessary two-thirds of the entire body to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide.

HB337, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would amend the state constitution to define a person with full constitutional rights as “all members of mankind at any stage of development, beginning at the stage of fertilization or conception.”

Supporters said the amendment, if adopted, would assign human rights to a fertilized human egg at the point of conception, essentially making abortion illegal.

All 52 of the Legislature’s Democrats voted against the measure; 95 of the body’s 98 Republicans voted for it. Two Republican senators voted against it and one Republican House member was absent for the final vote.

Democrats who spoke against HB337 during Senate debate Tuesday said it would lead to costly, unnecessary litigation, because, like all bills trying to restrict abortion in Montana, it would conflict with state constitutional privacy rights of women.

They noted that a state District Court decision two decades ago said Montana’s strong privacy right in the state constitution severely limits any attempt to restrict legal abortion here.

This is the sixth abortion bill we’ve heard this session,” said Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula. “Not one, not two, not three, four, five … this is sixth. So what’s the point of this?

“I’ve had a right to make medical decisions about my own body for 50 years in this country, thanks to the United States Supreme Court – 50 years. So, I have a message to the women of the state of Montana. You’ve heard that the governor has a comeback plan. He has a setback plan. He’s setting you back 50 years. He’s not moving Montana forward; he’s setting us back.”

Supporters of HB337 said it simply would give Montanans a chance to vote for a constitutional change that would protect the unborn, who they said are clearly human.

“The idea that life begins at conception — it’s not philosophy, it’s not theology, it’s not ideology,” said Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. “It’s an established scientific fact.”

“This bill is about human beings looking out for human beings,” added Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, who carried the bill on the Senate floor. “This is about civility, this is about decency and this is about humanity. And I would just urge us to go with our gut, to go with our instinct. We know that that baby is a person.”

Three bills to restrict or further regulate abortion in Montana have already passed the Republican-majority Legislature this session and will soon be sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for his signature. A fourth bill remains alive in the House.

Gianforte has said he intends to sign the bills. Opponents have said they will challenge the new laws in court, as an unconstitutional invasion of women’s privacy.