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Montana asks court not to block new laws targeting abortion

September 8, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s Republican attorney general is asking the court not to block the enforcement of several new abortion laws, after Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit last month claiming the law would unconstitutionally restrict access to the procedure in the state.

The laws are set to take effect Oct. 1. They would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation; restrict access to abortion pills; require abortion providers to ask patients if they would like to view an ultrasound; and prohibit insurance plans that cover abortion procedures from being offered on the federal exchange.

The lawsuit filed in Yellowstone District Court names Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen as a defendant. The state is represented in the case by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.

The state asked Tuesday for the court to reject Planned Parenthood’s request to block the laws before they take effect, saying the laws will “help minimize the medical risks” during pregnancy. But medical experts and abortion advocates broadly dispute that the new laws would make the procedure safer.

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The lawsuit claims the laws violate Montana’s constitution, which protects access to abortion before the fetus is viable, generally at 24 weeks gestation. It says the laws will reduce the number of locations where abortion services are offered and will threaten abortion providers with civil and criminal penalties.

The state’s court filing refers to abortions administered with pills as “dangerous chemical abortions” despite the fact that they are considered safe by medical professionals up to 11 weeks of gestation and used in 75% of abortion procedures at Planned Parenthood of Montana clinics.

“Because the regulations at issue protect women from the very people who are suing against these laws, Planned Parenthood has no basis for asking the court to halt what the legislature had every prerogative to pass,” ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle said in a statement.

The laws were passed earlier this year by the Republican-dominated Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, who last November became Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years. His Democratic predecessors blocked previous attempts to limit abortion access.

Montana joins several other GOP-led states in passing additional restrictions on abortion access this year, including Texas, where a new law took effect last week banning abortions after six weeks of gestation, before many people know they are pregnant.

Martha Stahl, president of Planned Parenthood of Montana, has said the various laws passed earlier this year in Montana share the goal of “outlawing ... abortion entirely.”

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The Montana lawsuit comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in May agreed to take up a case about whether states can ban abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb, a showdown that could dramatically alter nearly 50 years of rulings on the procedure.

That case, which focuses on a Mississippi law banning abortion 15 weeks into pregnancy, probably will be argued in the fall, with a decision likely in the spring of 2022.

While the high court’s decision could have far-reaching effects, the Montana Constitution grants an even stronger right to privacy than that afforded through federal law, and Stahl said the ruling would not necessarily affect abortion access in Montana.

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Samuels is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.