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Lawmakers show emotion on abortion issues

by Community News ServiceCody Bloomsburg
| February 3, 2011 4:14 PM

In a soft and affable voice, Republican

Rep. Pat Ingraham introduced herself and said she represented the

people of Sanders County. Those words were the last the entire room

would agree on in an emotional two-hour hearing this past Friday on

her bill to require that women have an ultrasound before they get

an abortion.

Last week marked 38 years since the

U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a right to an abortion.

But as the tears, outrage and gavel-slamming that attended

Ingraham’s House Bill 280 showed, the issue remains one of the most

polarizing that legislators face.

While the raw emotion surrounding

abortion has not subsided, Gregg Trude, state director of Montana

Right to Life, sees the overwhelming conservative majority in the

Legislature as his best opportunity in a decade to further the

group’s cause.

Trude is confident that Ingraham’s bill

and three other abortion-related bills will eventually land on Gov.

Brian Schweitzer’s desk this session. Senate Bill 97 would require

girls under the age of 16 to notify their parents before getting

abortions; Senate Bill 176 would forbid insurance companies that

cover abortions from writing policies in Montana under new federal

health care laws; and House Bill 167 would criminalize involvement

in the death of an unborn child.

Of those, Trude predicts Schweitzer

will sign the unborn child bill and the insurance bill.

Schweitzer declined to comment on

pending legislation, but he did warn lawmakers in his State of the

State address against sending him divisive bills that do not create

jobs. He has also been an outspoken advocate of a woman’s right to


House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade,

said that although social issues are not his party’s focus this

session, he thinks the parental notification measure will get the

most support from its members.

“I think there is a strong argument for

it,” Milburn said. “You have to notify parents if a child gets an

aspirin in school.”

A similar law, however, was struck down

by the Montana Supreme Court in 1999 on the grounds that it did not

enhance the health or safety of minors or treat all pregnant minors


The difference between SB 97 and

current law is that the age at which parental notification is no

longer required would be lowered from 18 to 16. The bill also

provides judges with more stringent criteria to weigh in deciding

whether a specific minor can have an abortion without telling her


So far there are nine abortion bills

and the unborn child bill. Staunch abortion-rights lawmakers like

Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, concede that the bills have a

golden ticket to Schweitzer’s desk.

“Every one of them will go through this

session,” Driscoll predicted after the hearing on the ultrasound

bill. “Hopefully, the governor will get out his veto pen and veto

every one of them.”

Abortion-rights groups, such as the

American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood of Montana,

agree. They hope Schweitzer will honor his past stance on the


“We expect that when he is presented

with those decisions that he will stand true to the principles of

choice,” said the ACLU’s Niki Zupanic.

HB 167, the unborn child bill, has

already cleared the Senate, though abortion-rights advocates warned

that it could undermine the federal rule that abortions are legal

in cases where a fetus cannot survive on its own outside the


Trude and Republicans say the unborn

child bill is in no way aimed at making abortions illegal. Its sole

purpose, they say, is to allow prosecutors to charge people who

attack a pregnant woman and thus end the pregnancy.

During the floor debate, Driscoll

described the bill as the beginning of the 2011 attack on a woman’s

right to choose. She added later, however, that she’s not sure

Schweitzer will see it the same way.

Some anti-abortion lawmakers aren’t

willing to leave the decisions to Schweitzer. They hope to put the

questions directly to voters.

Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, is

sponsoring two referendums to amend the Montana Constitution. One

would add a clause stating that Montanans have no specific right to

abortion, and the other would say a person’s life and rights begin

at conception. A draft bill is in place to put the parental

notification measure on the ballot, too.

But constitutional referendums require

at least 100 votes in the Legislature. Both Trude and Milburn said

Warburton’s referendums could have a hard time reaching that.

And so the debate goes on. No matter

what happens in the Legislature, or under the governor’s desk lamp,

or even at the polls, the ultimate legal decision over abortion is

sure to rest where it did 38 years ago – in the courts.