KAHRIN DEINES Associated Press Writer HELENA
An effort to assert a state interest in abortion faced impassioned debate before winning support Thursday in the Montana Senate. Senate Bill 46 was endorsed by a 29-19 vote. It would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to declare that the "protection of unborn human life is a compelling state interest." The change would modify the state's privacy protection law, altering language that has thwarted past attempts to declare abortion illegal. As a constitutional amendment, the measure requires 100 affirmative votes to pass through the Legislature. It will be voted on again in the Senate and will move to the House, where it faces a tough battle to capture the needed 71 votes. The House is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. "I think it would be a pretty big lift, a big hurdle, for them to get the votes that are needed," said Stacey Anderson of Planned Parenthood, which opposes the measure. Anderson said there are 46 solidly Pro-choice representatives in the House, leaving only 54 to vote in favor of what Planned Parenthood considers to be an anti-abortion measure. Sen. Daniel McGee, the bill's sponsor, said the issue should be placed before the voters of Montana, not decided by lawmakers or courts. "So the question becomes then do the people of Montana have a say as per Roe v. Wade, and Webster, do they have a say in the interests of unborn life?" The Republican from Laurel asked lawmakers during the Senate hearing. The 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade established women's right to an abortion in the United States. In the 1989 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health, the court split in a ruling that affirmed the legality of Missouri laws restricting access to abortion. Backers of McGee's bill said the new language would not immediately change abortion practices, but would give courts an opportunity to recognize restrictions on abortions in future cases. "This is a filter through which the courts will make their determinations," McGee said. Opponents, though, said the constitutional amendment targets women's abortion rights in the state. "It's the first step on a slippery slope, and I don't want the government or anybody else involved in that process," said Sen. Steve Gallus, D-Butte. The contentious topic prompted party desertions on both sides of the aisle, with four Democrats voting against the measure and two Republicans for it. "The bottom line is we all need to take a serious look at ourselves, a serious look inwards and have the moxie to really start addressing this issue, and until that happens I don't know that this helps," said Sen. John Brueggeman, who has voted anti-abortion in the past, but voted against the bill. The Republican from Polson said he thinks sex education would be a better way to prevent abortions. Senators veered into personal terrain as they discussed the issue, referencing religious beliefs, their own family choices and miscarriages, daughters and wives. Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, announced that he and his wife are expecting a child and said decisions made about that child are "intensely private." The measure is one of a number dealing with abortion that lawmakers are considering this session: On Thursday morning, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee heard another bill McGee is sponsoring that would give a fetus the legal status of a person. That bill would also require a constitutional amendment, and faces tough odds in the closely divided Legislature. Many supporters from the Montana ProLife Coalition and other groups turned out to testify in its favor. Opposed were representatives from Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro- Choice and others. Another bill, SB 327, would allow a charge of homicide if an unborn child dies in an attack on the mother. Opponents worry the change in criminal law would also establish a legal precedent to challenge women's abortion rights. The last time a legislative proposal was pitched to restrict abortion in the state in a 2007 push to amend the state constitution with a "right to life" guarantee it failed to even get a simple majority in the House.