Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) The group behind a ballot petition to enshrine abortion access in Montana’s constitution formally kicked off its signature gathering campaign Tuesday, telling supporters it is critical the initiative pass in November if Montanans want to avoid restrictions being imposed like those in Texas and other Republican-led states.

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights had already started gathering signatures to try to get Constitutional Initiative 128 onto November’s ballot last week in some of the state’s most populous cities, but Tuesday’s event at Mt. Ascension Brewing Company in Helena marked its official start to its effort to gather more than 60,000 valid signatures from Montana voters by the June 21 deadline.

“Abortion is a topic that’s become politicized and stigmatized, but in reality, we all love someone or are someone who’s had an abortion,” said Martha Fuller, the CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, one of the organizations that makes up Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights. “We can no longer let politicians threaten access to the lifesaving, essential care that thousands of Montanans need and deserve. Montanans must act now to proactively secure our right to abortion and CI-128 will protect the rights that we currently have for good.”

Speaking to several dozen supporters, members of the group, which also includes the ACLU of Montana and Forward Montana, said they believe Republican lawmakers in Montana will continue to push the bounds of the 1999 Armstrong v. Montana Supreme Court decision that found Montanans’ right to privacy includes a right to abortion access.

They said passing the initiative in November would ensure the legislators do not continue creating laws restricting that access after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and put decisions about abortion access back into the hands of the states.

Dr. Sam Dickman, an abortion provider and physician who is the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Montana, was nearly brought to tears as he recounted working in Texas when its abortion ban took effect and seeing patients have to travel to other states for care, and others who were pregnant after being sexually assaulted being forced to carry the pregnancy to term.

He said while the current court precedent has upheld abortion access in Montana, passing the constitutional amendment would ensure that lawmakers or courts couldn’t take that access away overnight. He cited the Arizona Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding a law passed before Arizona became a state as an example of how quickly the landscape can change for patients and providers.

“Montanans deserve dignity; they deserve the right to make medical decisions for themselves and their families, and no politicians should interfere with those decisions,” Dickman said. “I’ve seen what those abortion bans lead to, and we don’t want to see those consequences here in Montana.”

Fuller said the group already had at least 400 volunteers signed up to help gather signatures and promote the campaign. Akilah Deernose, the executive director of the ACLU of Montana, said she believed efforts by the attorney general to keep the group from moving their initiative forward reinforced the group’s stance that abortion access is still under threat, and that has invigorated supporters.

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Mikayla Pitts, the voter engagement and reproductive rights organizer for Forward Montana, said in the months the group has been doing voter registration drives on college campuses this year, she’s heard from many students interested in supporting the initiative.

Emma Foster, a Montana State University student, and Lily Madison, a high school junior, both said that younger people they had spoken with were energized by the campaign because it could have a large say in whether they want to stay in Montana for college or their careers.

“Attacks on our fundamental rights are bad for Montana. They cost us students, workers, doctors and businesses, and they make young people like myself feel like the state doesn’t value our rights and who we are,” Foster said.

The group said the signature gathering effort would be focused in Montana’s larger population centers, but that they have volunteers ready to go in more rural parts of the state as well since they have to gather signatures from 10% of the voters in 40 different state House districts.

“I think it’s going to be a volunteer effort like you don’t see with a lot of ballot measures,” Fuller said. “People are really engaged.”

She said the group will not be participating in Thursday’s Law and Justice Committee hearing on the initiative. Republican lawmakers decided to hold the hearing in order to give the measure an up-or-down vote despite the Montana Supreme Court already ruling that the initiative did not need to go through the committee hearing because of the way the law is written and that the committee’s vote will not be recorded on the ballot petition.

“I think that we’ve seen a lot of theater so far around this ballot measure and we are just ready to get to work and leave the theater up to politicians,” Fuller said.

The group said it was prepared to fight any other possible legal battles surrounding the initiative and the validity of the signatures it gathers should they arise, but their hope is to put the matter of abortion access to rest through a citizen-approved amendment to the constitution that legislators cannot change through lawmaking.

“Some legislators come into this town to rip our rights away instead of defending our constitutional rights and embracing freedom,” Pitts said. “Legislative session after legislative session, they push more extreme bans, and we’re tired of it. And we’re going to tell them at the ballot box.”