Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Montanans for Choice announced Monday it is launching a campaign on “reproductive freedom as a Montana value” with a series of billboards and digital ads.

The nonprofit focused on bodily autonomy said it aims to increase awareness that abortion and contraception are legal and available in Montana — and a political analyst said the group’s message and its timing could be powerful this year.

Separately, a spokesperson for Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights said Monday the group is confident a constitutional initiative to protect abortion will be on the ballot this year, CI-128.

“We are on track to collect the required number (of signatures) by the deadline this Friday,” said Ashley All with the group.

Abortion is legal in Montana. In the 1999 Armstrong vs. State of Montana case, state justices found the right to privacy protects the right to procreative autonomy, including abortion.

If approved for the ballot and supported by voters, the initiative would amend the Montana Constitution to “expressly provide a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.” It would also prohibit the government from interfering before fetal viability.

The group working on the constitutional initiative is separate from Montanans for Choice. However, the work is related, and the new campaign from the latter could buoy the effort to explicitly protect abortion in the constitution, according to the political analyst.

“They might be striking the right timing and tone and topics that I think will do pretty well given the fact that it’s June,” said Paul Pope, faculty member with Montana State University in Billings.

He said the public needs time to acclimate to new messages.

The billboards by Montanans for Choice focus on “freedom.” A couple say, “Our freedom is precious,” and another says, “Reproductive freedom belongs to us all.”

Nicole Smith, executive director of Montanans for Choice, said although abortion remains legal in Montana, it’s a right that still must be guarded.

“We know that attempts to chip away at our rights are far from over,” Smith said in an email. “We want Montanans everywhere to know that when we unite and work together, we can make sure that all our freedoms are protected, and that includes our reproductive freedom.”

Montanans for Choice, previously NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, also launched an expanded mission to advance gender equity and sexual health in addition to reproductive freedom. It said bodily autonomy is “essential to the human experience,” and the abortion rights movement operated in a silo for too long.

“We recognize that the threats we face are inextricably linked to one another; they are rooted in and perpetuated by the systems of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy,” said Montanans for Choice on its website.

Pope, the political analyst, said abortion used to be a wedge issue and Republican talking point: “This opposition to abortion was a powerful tool for Republicans in their political fight with Democrats.”

However, he said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2022 has noticeably shifted the needle in favor of Democrats. In that case, the Supreme Court found there is no constitutional right to abortion, overturning the 1973 precedent in Roe v. Wade.

The decision changed the foundation of women’s autonomy in society, Pope said. And it’s linked to the idea of women having agency over their own bodies, he said, and women account for 51% of the population.

The left hasn’t really adopted “patriotic speak,” but Pope said he believes the message about abortion from Montanans for Choice will resonate not just for people on the left, but also for more moderate Republicans, especially female Republicans.

On the other hand, “freedom” has been a buzzword for Republicans, but it doesn’t line up with the GOP’s stance on abortion and reproductive care, he said: “You can’t talk about increasing freedom by taking a right away, and I think people see through that really easily.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have doubled down on their opposition to abortion, even opposing in vitro fertilization, he said. In the meantime, he said, 60% to 70% of women in the United States support access to abortion and reproductive care.

“Things that a majority of us really support are going to do well if they become a policy position,” Pope said.

Abortion is also tangible and palpable, he said, unlike another idea that had been floated as a special legislative session topic, for example — to make it illegal for a non-citizen to vote, already illegal, and as such, a “solution in search of a problem,” Pope said.

At the same time, Montanans run right down the middle of the road on many issues, he said, and if any group pushes an extreme message, it won’t likely work well in Montana.

“Montanans aren’t big on rapid change, but we’re also not about sticking with the status quo if it’s not working for us either,” he said.

Abortion is an issue in other political races in Montana too. For example, SBA Pro-Life American Candidate Fund just endorsed Republican and current state auditor Troy Downing in the eastern congressional district over Democrat John Driscoll; the group could not be reached for comment by email Monday in time for this story.

“SBA (Susan B. Anthony) Pro-Life America’s Montana field team is working to visit the homes of 150,000 voters to expose the extremism of the Democratic candidates and the ballot measure to enshrine all-trimester abortions in the state constitution,” the group said in an email about the endorsement.

Smith said Montanans for Choice launched its campaign around the same time the Supreme Court made its decision on Dobbs two years ago on June 24 to remind people that “freedom is precious” and can’t be taken for granted.

She said it aims to highlight abortion but also contraceptive care. Montanans for Choice said it has 10 billboards across the state and also radio and digital ads.

“We want people to realize that reproductive freedom includes a host of issues and healthcare services, and we must take action to not only protect the rights we have, but also to acknowledge that many people in our state still do not have access to these essential services, and that means that many cannot realize their reproductive goals,” Smith said.