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Reproductive Rights Emerge from 2015 Montana Legislature Stronger Than Ever
HELENA, MT—Reproductive rights emerged stronger than ever after the 2015 Session, even in the midst of rampant attacks throughout the nation. Montana gained its own share of national attention for extreme legislation—not just yoga pants and dress codes—bigger, more personal policies like the ban on telemedical abortion services and the "fetal anesthesia bill”. But despite the hostile national climate, a handful of anti-choice zealots, and countless shenanigans, Montana has maintained its solid platform allowing for private medical decisions; and has even expanded its commitment to family planning services—a breath of fresh air and sound logic—thanks to the work of Governor Bullock and responsible Republicans.
NARAL Pro-Choice Montana applauds Governor Bullock for his unwavering commitment to put health above politics, and the strong Republicans who pushed back against extreme, dangerous legislation. Responsible Republicans even made the bold and brilliant move to take Title X Family Planning Funding out of the budget circus and lay the non-controversial issues of pregnancy prevention and pap smears to rest. This is to say nothing of the bold moves to expand access to healthcare (including reproductive healthcare) through the HELP Act.
With vetoes of all anti-choice bills and greater access to healthcare, Montanans reproductive health outlook is better than ever. There is much to be applauded and celebrated.
AN OVERVIEW OF REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH-RELATED BILLS
Governor Steve Bullock vetoed three bills that would have jeopardized women’s health and restricted Montanans access to abortion care. All three bills were noted, rightly, by the Governor as "part of a series of extreme bills prioritizing political ideology over sound health care policy”. All three bills were sponsored by men and opposed by reproductive rights advocates and medical societies.
House Bill 587—the ban on "webcam chemical abortions”
Rep. Regier of Kalispell sponsored HB 587 in an effort to "protect” women from what he referred to as "webcam” and "chemical” abortions. [FACT: Medical abortion is incredibly safe—a regimen of two medications taken orally early in a pregnancy. Serious complications arise in less than 0.4% of medication abortions and all research has shown that this rate does not change with the employment of telemedicine.] Supporters of the bill showed a complete lack of understanding of both medication abortion and telemedicine, in general. They repeatedly painted a picture of a young woman in her rural bedroom on her laptop, communicating with a doctor (or maybe he isn’t a doctor!), never getting examined and never receiving follow-up care, but getting "chemicals” sent to her in the mail to induce an abortion. Blatant fear-mongering and imagination. Telemedicine is a legitimate and common method of health care in Montana, one that the sponsor himself endorsed in the 2013 Legislature. Opponents of the bill included, not only NARAL and Planned Parenthood (whom you might expect), but also the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Montana Chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and Montana medical providers, to name a few.
The bill would have had a disproportionately negative effect on women in rural areas where access to safe, early abortion care is already incredibly challenging. In his veto letter, Governor Bullock urged greater access to healthcare via telemedicine, not imposing restrictions on particular medical procedures before they are even being utilized in the state.
This bill was unnecessary and targeted a medical procedure that has been proven to be entirely safe via telemedicine. Every medical society applauds the capabilities of telemedicine and recognizes the unmatched track record for safety that medical abortion has. Beyond that, though, we should all be objecting to legislators directing how medical professionals operate. This sort of government intrusion would never be accepted in any other healthcare setting, and it certainly should not be tolerated here.
Senate Bill 349—the stigmatizing insurance bill
Sen. Smith of Billings pushed a bill restricting access to abortion care, attempting to force health insurance companies on the exchange to create special plans without abortion coverage. Bill supporters ironically coined this as a "pro-choice” bill—giving consumers the choice to follow their conscience and not have one dollar of their premiums go toward helping pay for another insured person’s abortion. If a consumer may choose their healthcare coverage based on moral judgement—should we then allow for purchasers to opt out of birth control coverage, circumcision, vaccinations, STI treatment, or diabetes medication?
The purpose of health insurance is, in large part, to deal with unforeseen circumstances that cannot be predicted. In his veto letter, Bullock stated, "a woman’s healthcare coverage should be comprehensive…Under this bill, a woman could be faced with any number of medical emergencies and find herself without the coverage she needs to make the best decision for herself and her family”. NARAL Pro-Choice Montana echoes this statement. Healthcare must be comprehensive—and whether someone ever uses it or not, that includes legal, abortion care. Period.
House Bill 479—the fetal pain, junk science bill
Rep. Albert Olszewski, also of Kalispell, imbibed himself in authority as a medical doctor more than once—but we should remember that he is an expert in knee surgery, not fetal anesthesia. A doctor who is an expert in fetal anesthesia and fetal surgery, Dr. Thomas C. Key of Great Falls, an OBGYN of Maternal Fetal Medicine specializing in high-risk, problem pregnancies, came out in strong opposition to the bill, referring to the science as "without medical foundation” and "little to do with a true and rational understanding of the fetus and its ability or inability to perceive pain”. The irony is that some legislators appear to respect a doctor’s authority on the House floor, but not in their doctor’s offices. Olszewski’s bill gained national attention as part of a wave of extreme and dangerous anti-abortion legislation based on junk science.
While every single anti-choice bill was sponsored by a male this session, two male legislators—one Democrat and one Republican—spoke passionately on the floor against this bill by describing their own personal experiences. Rep. Doc Moore (R) of Missoula urged his colleagues to vote against HB479 telling his own story of a wanted pregnancy that was terminated when his late wife was diagnosed with cancer. Sen. Dick Barrett (D) also spoke against the bill, paralleling his own experience with being diagnosed with cancer.
The last person I wanted in that room, with all due respect, is you guys. The last people I want telling doctors what the best way to treat a condition is, is you guys. The last people I want teaching me the medical science, is you guys. Leave this to a woman, her doctor, the medical professionals, the medical field, her family, her spiritual advisors. All of us, in our lives, will face a moment of medical crisis. When you are sitting across the desk with your doctor, think about this. Do you want the legislature in that room with you? Please don't ask me to be there.
NARAL Pro-Choice Montana is grateful for the strong voices of men supporting women’s private medical decisions, especially those willing to share their deeply personal stories.
The extreme bills that fell short
Aside from the three bills NARAL Pro-Choice Montana and our allies on the Montana Reproductive Rights Coalition urged the Governor to veto, there were several other extreme bills that didn’t make it to Bullock’s desk. Freshman Rep. Olszewski turned out to be one of our top adversaries because in addition to his offensive fetal anesthesia bill, he also sponsored two other bills attempting to interfere with reproductive healthcare. He was lambasted by countless members of the medical community for his House Bill 438 which attempted to limit the scope of practice for many healthcare providers. NARAL Pro-Choice Montana organized opposition to this bill after an outcry from the midwifery community and the potential effects it could have on access to comprehensive pregnancy and child birthing options. In another despicable move, Olszewski attempted to quietly slip in an amendment on another bill (HB271) that would bar doctors from dispensing medical abortion drugs in their offices. Both of these bills failed in committee.
Two constitutional amendments were defeated as well. House Bill 425—the Personhood Amendment—was tabled in Senate Judiciary by a Republican on account of the impossibility of getting the 49 of 50 Senators necessary to vote green. This is the fourth legislative session that has defeated Personhood (soundly and with bipartisan opposition). House Bill 615—the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA)—was possibly the most extreme RFRA the nation had ever seen, but it also failed to gain the votes needed to move forward.
Responsible Republicans win the session
These extreme bills were juxtaposed against courageous efforts led by responsible Republicans to expand access to healthcare. Governor Bullock’s vetoes came on the heels of the passage of House Bill 606, a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Christy Clark and hugely supported by members of the GOP in both chambers (127 of 150 legislators voted for HB 606 on third readings). This exciting bill takes Title X Family Planning funding—an often contentious debate each legislative session—out of the budget process and into statute, to be administered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. This was a smart move for reproductive health in Montana, especially rural Montana. But it also makes sense for middle-of-the-road Republicans who understand the need for family planning services. The logical, fiscally responsible stance for those who purport to be against abortion is to support efforts to prevent unintended pregnancy. But with harsh pressure within the party to conform to arbitrary lines drawn by leadership, voting pro-family planning can potentially harm responsible Republicans, lest they be labeled "pro-choice” and be subjected to intraparty opposition.
The responsible Republicans who led the charge to expand healthcare to tens of thousands of Montanans through the HELP Act, in the face of unimaginable challenges, should also be commended for the work they have done. So many Montanans are proud to say that our values have prevailed and are hopeful that the movement toward cooperation and middle-ground continues to baffle out-of-state corporations and interest groups.
CHANGING POLITICAL ENVIRONMENTS
Nuances in the Republican Party
Each legislative session, NARAL Pro-Choice Montana tracks reproductive health-related bills and scores elected officials on their votes. Legislators then receive a "pro-choice percentage” based on their votes. The 2015 Legislative Session scorecard stands out among the others throughout the years in some historic ways. For the first time ever, the majority of Republicans (the vast majority) had a percentage greater than zero; in fact, just a handful of Republicans—eight in the House and eight in the Senate—voted anti-choice on all bills tracked.
The Montana House baulked party lines more often than the Senate with regards to reproductive health bills. In the House, 51 of 59 Republicans voted pro-choice on at least one of the seven bills analyzed. The majority of these pro-choice votes were on Title X Family Planning Funding and/or the HELP Act. But even beyond this, eleven Republicans had a pro-choice percentage of 23% or more; they voted pro-choice on at least three bills tracked. Rep. Doc Moore of Missoula led his Republican colleagues by holding his 100% pro-choice percentage with us.
Can we move beyond the abortion attacks?
The 2015 Legislative Session sent a clear message that targeting access to safe, legal healthcare is not the priority of the majority of the legislative body—and Montanans are breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Montana’s abortion rate has declined steadily and is currently at the lowest rate it has been in nearly forty years. Further, Montana’s abortion rate is statistically lower in every category than the rest of the nation. These constant attacks on abortion do not reflect appropriate priorities. Abortion rates are low because the rates of unintended pregnancies are lower. And those are lower because we have better education and access to effective contraceptive methods. If we want to reduce the abortion rate even more, as seems to be the intention of the anti-choice groups and legislators, we should be promoting even greater access to these preventative techniques. The attacks on abortion are tired and misplaced.
Even with a track record of success in pushing back against legislative attacks, abortion services are dwindling in Montana. In the last two years, two independent abortion providers have closed their doors—one in Livingston and one in Kalispell. One clinic closed due to personal health issues and retirement; the other was not closed by choice, but rather because an anti-choice extremist destroyed everything in the building in a horrific attack last March. This is an important note to keep in mind; as we focus attention on legislation, there are other factors at play already limiting access.
Our hope is that this Session has created a space that allows Republican legislators to vote their conscience, common sense, and libertarian values by opposing unnecessary abortion restrictions. We elect our leaders to make progress for working people, not insert themselves into healthcare and private decisions. As we look forward to next Session, we are hopeful that we will see the appropriate priorities manifest and the abortion attacks will begin to diminish in our state.
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