John Kelleher Havre Daily News email@example.com
Petitions are being circulated in Havre and elsewhere in the state calling for a referendum on an amendment to the Montana constitution that would in effect ban abortion. If the amendment is approved, supporters and opponents agree, it would pose a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions in most cases. Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, a leader in the state's anti-abortion movement, said she is finding widespread support for the amendment. But opponents, led by Helenabased NARAL/ Pro-Choice Montana, say they doubt supporters will gather enough signatures to get on the ballot. If they do, opponents are confident voters will reject the amendment. If supporters get the necessary signatures, the vote would be held in November 2010. "I think Montanans would be shocked to learn that according to state law there is no restriction on abortions up to the moment of labor," Warburton said. Even when state lawmakers approved antiabortion laws, they are overturned by state courts based on the state constitution's privacy clause, she said. The proposed constitutional change, called the personhood amendment, declares that life begins at conception and continues through the end of natural life. Warburton said the amendment would also protect elderly from euthanasia. People supporting and opposing the amendment do not follow the usual political lines in Montana. State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, generally a liberal who is on the opposite side of Warburton on many issues, said he supports the amendment. And the Montana Catholic Conference, a mainstay in the pro-life movement, is not supporting the proposal. It questions the strategy of an all-out challenge to Roe v. Wade at this time. Warburton said people are disgusted to learn that parents have no right to know if their teenage daughter is having an abortion. "Hundreds of young girls come into Montana to have abortions," she said, "because we have no parental notification laws." But Allyson Hagen, executive director of Pro-Choice Montana, said the state has a long tradition of supporting women's reproductive rights. "The Montana constitution has a very strong privacy clause," she said. "Stronger than most states." She said voters have shown little support for strict antiabortion laws. Abortion foes failed in 2008 to get enough signatures to get the personhood amendment on the ballot, she said. Similar proposals have been turned down by wide margins in other states. Last year, it was overwhelmingly turned down in Colorado, she said. South Dakota, "a state most people would agree is more conservative than Montana, voted it down 55 percent to 45 percent," she said. "And that proposal had an exception for the life of the mother. The Montana amendment does not." Native American beliefs Windy Boy said his opposition to abortion is based on "what the elders have told us for many years." "Native Americans have a firm pro-life belief," he said. Windy Boy, a supporter of social causes and an early supporter of President Barack Obama, said his opposition to abortion has upset and frustrated his party's leadership, which is generally pro-choice. He said there is support for the amendment in his sprawling district, which is more than 50-percent Native American. "I'm not saying that all Native Americans are pro-life," he said. "But most are, I believe." Many people of European ancestry agree with him, he said. But while praising people in the pro-life movement for its opposition to abortion, he said if they were consistent in their beliefs, they should join him in his opposition to the death penalty. Catholic Conference's concern Warburton and leaders of the Catholic Conference say they are saddened by the falling out between the two factions. "We have great respect for Wendy Warburton. We have worked with her on many issues," said Moe Wosepka, executive director of the Catholic Conference. "And I'm sure we will continue to." But Wosepka is concerned that approval of the amendment would, in the long run, hurt the pro-life cause. If the amendment is approved, it will also certainly result in a legal challenge that will find its way in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Catholic conference is worried that this would prompt a premature challenge to the 1973 decision. While there appears to be some support on the high court for overturning Roe v. Wade, a majority of the justices do not appear ready to do so, he said. Should the Montana amendment be approved by voters and then overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, it will have the effect of solidifying Roe v. Wade, Wosepka fears. "We want nothing more than to end abortions," he said. "We just have different strategies." Instead of the personhood amendment, Wosepka said the pro-life movement should launch a fight against the Montana constitution's liberal privacy clause, he said. Opponents of laws limiting abortion rights have pointed to the privacy clause, and state courts have generally ruled in their favor. The Montana Supreme Court is now deliberating a challenge to laws against assisted suicide. The challenge is based on the privacy clause, Wosepka said. The coming battle Warburton said she thinks Montanans are ready to put restrictions on abortions. "Polls show that the American public is trending pro-life," she said. "Fifty-one percent call themselves prolife. That is a turn around." Hagen points to results in other states that show people are rejecting anti-abortion legislation. She said Pro-Choice Montana members were at the polls on primary day when prolife supporters were asking voters to sign their petitions. "People just didn't want to sign them," she said. She recalled that the pro-life supporters asked the Legislature to put the amendment on the ballot, thus avoiding the need for the petitiongathering process. The measure was defeated, receiving little support from Hi-Line lawmakers, except for Warburton and Windy Boy. The fact that Warburton's "natural allies," such as the Catholic Conference, do not support the measure shows that it is in trouble, she said. But if it does get on the ballot, her group will mount a vigorous fight to defeat it, she said. Warburton is braced for the fight. "They have a lot more money than we do," she said. "But we are ready," That may be so, Hagen said. "We raise all of our money from the grassroots in Montana," she said. "If we have more money, it's because we have more support."