A bill that legally defines Montana’s constitutional right to privacy as not protecting abortion rights passed a key vote in the Senate chamber on Wednesday, leaving another hurdle before it can continue on its way to a House committee.
Senate Bill 154, sponsored by Senator Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, passed after less than 10 minutes of debate by a vote of 28 to 21, with six Republicans defecting from their faction. The bill was previously passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee strictly along party lines, with all seven Republican lawmakers voting in favor and four Democrats voting no.
To advance to the House of Representatives chamber, a majority of the Senate must reapprove the bill in a final vote, which usually occurs the next day the Legislature is in session.
The constitutional provision that would interpret Governor’s bill states that “the right to privacy of an individual is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be violated without demonstrating an overriding interest of the state.” Should the bill pass , he would contradict the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. the state, which viewed access to an early abortion from a chosen provider as a reasonable exercise of medical privacy and the “reproductive autonomy” guaranteed by the state constitution ” looked .
In statements Wednesday, Regier expressed his belief that a fetus is a person who should be granted individual rights, an argument he made during the committee’s hearing in January.
“There must be a reason why the drafters label this right to privacy with ‘individuals’. And that’s the whole premise of the bill. Abortion is not an isolated event. We know that,” said Governor.
On the issue of the Armstrong verdict, Regier said court rulings do not always stand the test of time.
“I know that some courts have ruled that a right to privacy means a right to an abortion,” Regier said. “I would like to remind you that courts have made wrong decisions in the past. From Dred Scott to eugenics to Roe v. Wade, the court made wrong decisions that were later corrected.”
Democrats and some Republicans questioned Regier’s bill, calling it an invasion of privacy and a lightning rod to expensive litigation.
“Personally, I’m committed to life. But ladies and gentlemen of this committee, privacy is privacy. Individual privacy is privacy. If passed, this law would be unconstitutional,” R-Great Falls Sen. Wendy McKamey said in a brief statement in the Senate.
Democrats echoed those concerns, adding that the bill goes against the message voters sent last November when they rejected the 131-law referendum, a voting issue that would have required life-saving medical procedures for all newborns, including those with fatal diagnoses. Democrats and LR-131 opponents interpreted this result as a victory for protecting reproductive health care from government interference.
“The majority of Montanans do not support restricting women’s access to comprehensive health care,” said Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula. “This law, as noted, is blatantly unconstitutional and will be taken to court, becoming a waste of taxpayers’ time and money.”
Democrats unanimously rejected SB 154, supported by Republicans Sens. McKamey, Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge; Dan Salomon, R-Ronan; Russ Temple, R-Chester; Terry Vermeire, R anaconda; and Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon.
Abortion rights advocates spoke Wednesday afternoon about the final vote count.
“It is heartbreaking to see SB 154 pass second reading. Montanans value our fundamental right to privacy, and these continued efforts to undermine our Constitution are damaging,” said Aileen Gleizer, a representative for the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula and the Susan Wicklund Fund, an abortion access group.
Speaking to the Montana Free Press after the vote, Welborn said he voted “my conscience” for a proposal he said directly addresses the right to privacy as opposed to a specific abortion rule.
“The irony baffles me that we’re supposed to be the party with less government until it’s our own way of running people’s lives. In this case, the most personal space in people’s lives,” Welborn said. “And for me, I feel like we can spend time moving towards the things that we’re constitutionally obligated to do, rather than talking about what separates us.”
Because the bill “damn sure wasn’t voted directly on a party line,” Welborn said he wasn’t sure how to interpret Senate Republicans’ interest in considering other abortion-related bills.
“Even as our majority grows, there may be more and more people who are just willing to say enough is enough,” Welborn said, referring to controversial social issues bills. “I honestly don’t know what to expect.”