Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A Montana pediatrician and palliative care specialist and several members of the Missoula City Council are voicing opposition to a November ballot measure that would force doctors to provide medical care to a “born alive infant,” even when the infant has no chance of survival.

Member of the medical community and even the Montana League of Women Voters oppose the measure, saying it would bring harm to a woman's health and deny parents a narrow opportunity to comfort and hold a dying infant.

“The moments when those families have to say goodbye to their infants are irreplaceable and really help them in their grief journey,” said Dr. Melody Cunningham, a pediatrician who specializes in palliative care. “I still hear from families five, 10 to 15 years later after the loss of their child, because it's so profound.”

If approved, LR-131 would consider any infant born alive at any stage of development as a legal person. It would require that medical care be provided to infants born alive after induced labor, cesarean section, attempted abortion or another method, regardless of the infant's viability.

If violated, the measure would impose a $50,000 fine and/or 20 years in prison as a maximum penalty. That could have a chilling effect on medical professionals in the state, opponents content.

“I've been a pediatrician for 30 years, and 15 of those I've had the privilege and honor of being in pediatric hospice and palliative medicine,” said Cunningham. “I've had the sacred privilege of walking with families that have had to say goodbye to their infants who will not survive.”

The Montana League of Women Voters has also come out against the measure, calling it unnecessary given that Montana law already recognizes the responsibility of medical providers to care for viable infants outside of the womb.

“LR 131 would cause real harm to non-viable infants by requiring extreme medical procedures to prolong intolerable pain and suffering,” wrote Nancy Maxson and Nancy Leifer, co-presidents of the Missoula chapter. “These decisions need to be made by medical experts who are fully knowledgeable about each unique situation. LR 131 could harm parents by interfering with their ability to comfort, hold and touch their non-viable infant while it's dying.”

Healthcare professionals around the state, including the Montana Medical Association, Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Missoula and Bozeman, and Neonatology in Billings, also oppose the measure, and for similar reasons.

They add that the authors of ballot initiative claim that it's about abortion and use “inflammatory rhetoric” to gain support, though LR 131 has “nothing to do” with abortion.

“The reality is that this represents government interference in the patient-physician relationship at times when families need compassionate care and trust in their health care professionals the most,” the organizations wrote in a join letter. “There are so many reasons that an infant may be delivered with no chance of survival – rupture of membranes at a previable gestational age, lethal anomalies of the heart, kidneys, lungs or nervous system, maternal health emergencies … This bill pushes a one-size-fits-all mandate that will cause real harm to these babies, mothers and families.”

The bill was authored by Rep. Regier, R-Kalispell and supported by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings. McGillvray said the measure would protect babies. It would also protect those “born after a failed attempt to abort a child.”

“Voting yes protects living, breathing, viable babies from having their lives intentionally ended,” McGillvray said. “Voting against LR-131 is a precursor to potential infanticide in Montana.”

With the election less than a month away, the measure has largely flown under the radar, and many members of the Missoula City Council weren't aware of the referendum's impacts.

On Monday, several spoke out against the bill, calling it cruel.

“It's a cruel overreach,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “It's a brutal thing to consider.”

Council member Kristen Jordan agreed.

“It's a critical bill to educate yourselves on and make sure you understand what you're voting for,” she said. “It's a little quirky and may not be what you think it is.”