By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA - A bill that could outlaw abortion by defining a fetus at any stage as a person passed the House last week.

Introduced by Rep. Derek Skees, House Bill 595 would give Montana voters an option to approve a constitutional amendment that would define a person as “all members of the species Homo sapiens at any stage of development.”

“Every single life matters,” Skees said. “From the moment of the first mitosis, to the last breath we draw before we get promoted.”

The bill was widely condemned by House Democrats, who said there were problems with the bill even beyond how it would affect abortions.

Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said the language of the bill is too expansive, and that “any stage of development” could be interpreted as including sperm.

“Producing sperm is a stage that is necessary for life for Homo sapiens,” Morigeau said. “This legislation would actually create a crime, in my mind, for not preserving your sperm.”

Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, said the bill’s broad language could also set a constitutional precedent for limiting birth control access.

“I just want you to think for a minute how this will affect maybe your wife, maybe your daughter, maybe your granddaughters,” Court said.

Skees said the bill would not consider sperm a stage of development, as it is intended to protect fetuses after fertilization. He said it also does not criminalize miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies because those are natural processes.

“The only thing different from that very first mitosis … and what’s standing here today is time and nutrition,” Skees said.

Because the bill is a constitutional amendment, it requires approval from two-thirds of the entire Legislature in order to be placed on a ballot. There are currently not enough Republican lawmakers to meet that requirement, meaning in order for it to pass, some Democrats would have to support the bill as well. Gov. Steve Bullock would also be unable to veto the measure if it passes.

The bill passed the House 58-42. It will now move to the Senate.

Bill would regulate telemedicine practices

With long distances between cities and frequent weather-related travel difficulties, it can often be hard to access medical services in Montana. Because of this, more patients are meeting with doctors remotely, through the practice of telemedicine.

Rep. Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City, listens Monday, March 27 to a question from a Senate committee about House Bill 389. Wagoner is carrying the bill, which aims to find a better way for people in rural areas in Montana to see their doctors. (Freddy Monares/UM Community News Service)
Rep. Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City, listens Monday, March 27 to a question from a Senate committee about House Bill 389. Wagoner is carrying the bill, which aims to find a better way for people in rural areas in Montana to see their doctors. (Freddy Monares/UM Community News Service)

House Bill 389, introduced by Rep. Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City, places regulations on telemedicine, a practice in which doctors communicate with patients remotely through video or audio chat.

“The main purpose behind this bill is to put some sideboards on the practice of telemedicine in Montana, to help Montanans,” Wagoner said.

The bill would require doctors practicing telemedicine to first establish a relationship with their patients through video chat or in person. After the relationship is established, they will be allowed to conduct visits with only audio communication.

“Telemedicine technologies are out there now, and they’re very good,” said Michael Vlases, a physician from Bozeman. “They give patients more resources for health care and more flexibility ... often in much more convenient ways.”

Vlases said he once had a patient unable to reach his office due to poor road conditions on a mountain pass. They were able to still conduct the visit through the use of telemedicine technologies.

Greg Dorrington, representing the Montana Medical Association, said the bill contains important provisions for maintaining high standards of care. He also said the bill is “technology-neutral,” and it doesn’t prevent the usage of any types of telemedicine after the initial establishment of the relationship.

Four people spoke against the bill, most of whom represented Teladoc, a telemedicine provider based in New York.

Greg Van Horssen, a Helena attorney representing Teladoc, said he opposes the bill because it is not technology-neutral enough.

“It’s currently the case that the initial interactions can be either audio-visual or two-way audio,” Van Horssen said.

No immediate action was taken on the bill.

Bill would help poor schools repay facility maintenance debts

The Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee heard testimony on a bill last week  that would reallocate roughly $7 million to help poorer schools repay debt on school facility projects.

Jeff Essmann
Jeff Essmann

House Bill 134, introduced by Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, moves revenue from state timber lands and rents paid by utility companies on state riverbed lands from the Quality Schools Program to a new, as of yet unnamed account. The money would be used for covering the debts from facility maintenance projects.

Essmann said some Montana schools are facing the problem of losing students, while others are gaining students as the state’s population increases. The latter, he said, need help making room.

He said HB 134 would “try to provide some stable base for that debt service assistance, because it’s going to be needed by those districts that are growing.”

The bill had no opponents at the hearing.

Supporters of the bill said it was a crucial measure for ensuring schools have enough money to maintain their facilities.

“It’s an integral part of the school facilities needs in Montana,” said Marco Ferro, representing MEA-MFT, Montana’s teacher’s union.

Bob Vogel, representing the Montana School Boards Association, said the bill stabilizes and gives direction to the state land revenue.

“I think this is a great bill that gets us to where we need to be on this part of the facilities payments,” Vogel said.

No immediate action was taken on the bill.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.