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Republican Lawmakers In Montana Attempt To Restrict Abortion Access

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On the presidential map, Montana counts as a red state. It's voted for a Democrat for president two times in the past 70 years. Montana is unusual for a red state, though, in several ways. One of which is its broad access to abortion - at least until this year. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar has more.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: For the first time in 16 years, Montanans have elected a Republican governor. Governor Greg Gianforte has been outspoken against abortion access since the campaign trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG GIANFORTE: I will be very clear. I am pro-life. I think life is precious, and it needs to be protected.

RAGAR: Gianforte doubled down on that message in his first State of the State address last month in Helena.

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GIANFORTE: We must protect the lives of the most vulnerable - unborn children.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

RAGAR: During his address, Gianforte implored lawmakers to send him two bills to sign - one that would ban most abortions at 20 weeks and another to require doctors to care for infants born alive after an attempted abortion, that last one even though experts say that scenario is extremely rare and that infanticide is already illegal.

Republican lawmakers have already made significant headway in advancing those policies. As many as a dozen bills may be on the way. Democrats in Montana's Statehouse have vowed to push back. Representative Laurie Bishop gave the party's rebuttal to Gianforte's State of the State.

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LAURIE BISHOP: After a long campaign season talking about jobs, Montana Republicans have let our economic recovery fall by the wayside. Instead, they have focused their energies on attacking the freedoms of Montana's women.

RAGAR: But Democrats are outnumbered. Conservatives hold ironclad majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

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LOLA SHELDON-GALLOWAY: We are so excited as the Republican Party...

RAGAR: This is Representative Lola Sheldon-Galloway, vice chair of the Montana GOP, who introduced the 20-week abortion ban bill.

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SHELDON-GALLOWAY: ...To have a governor that stands with us and stands for life.

RAGAR: She's one of a dozen lawmakers carrying anti-abortion legislation this session.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MONTANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE #1: House Bill 140 will require an abortion provider to offer the patient the opportunity to view an active ultrasound.

UNIDENTIFIED MONTANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE #2: House Bill 136, entitled An Act Adopting the Montana Pain-Capable Unborn Child...

UNIDENTIFIED MONTANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE #3: It's House Bill 167. It protects those infants that are born alive.

RAGAR: One bill would have a unique impact in Montana, which is the fourth-largest state, geographically speaking. It would ban medication abortions via telehealth and would require a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. Groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say the safety of a medical abortion is well-established, but the bill would also require providers to overstate the dangers. Opponents of the bill say it would add undue burden for those seeking abortions and particularly for rural, Native American and low-income people.

JOEY BANKS: This is Joey Banks working as chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Montana.

RAGAR: Banks, a primary care physician, walks me through a typical scenario with a patient seeking a medication abortion.

BANKS: She's a mother that's five hours away and has four kids. I'm able to mail her the meds. She doesn't have to take off work. She doesn't have to load her smallest kids in a car and drive five hours through a pandemic.

RAGAR: Banks says some of her patients are leaving an abusive partner, and others are juggling work with home schooling their kids.

BANKS: If bills like this pass in Montana, women will not be as safe.

RAGAR: Abortion rights advocates say they will challenge these policies in court, which means after years of allowing abortion access, Montana joins the ranks of other red states testing the precedent of Roe v. Wade.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "CAN'T TOUCH THIS OR THAT OR YOU OR MY FACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.