HELENA — Abortion foes, coming off a successful ballot initiative campaign requiring parental notification before teens undergo the procedure, launched into their legislative requests Tuesday with a renewed proposal to criminalize the killing of a fetus.
Even though the measure excludes medical procedures, such as abortion, it is steeped in the politics and ideology that surround that debate and opened the door to a familiar and emotional fight.
The House Judiciary Committee, led by social conservatives considered very likely to move the bill along, was told Tuesday that the measure adds "unborn child" to homicide offenses. Currently, homicide laws cover the death of a human being.
The measure also defines "unborn child" as a human who is conceived but not born.
Support was led by anti-abortion groups who argue a law is needed to place value on the unborn child. Opponents, including those who support abortion rights, argued the change is unnecessary and could lead to intrusive investigations into a mother's health history.
The sponsor, Rep. Keith Regier of Kalispell said the "pregnant woman protection act" makes sure there are murder charges for a violent act that kills an unborn child. He said the new legal charge will "put the proper value on the pregnancy."
At least 38 other states have some sort of "fetal homicide" law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Opponents said the measure infringes on a constitutional right to privacy, potentially opening up a women's medical records to inspection by a defense team that could try to blame her actions for the loss of the fetus. They also argued that a woman's own actions could potentially come under prosecutorial scrutiny if a fetus is lost.
Other measures could be better taken to help protect pregnant women from violence, opponents said.
"This bill attempts to bolster an anti-choice agenda," said Kim Leighton of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana.
A similar measure cleared the Legislature two years ago, only to be vetoed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
House Bill 104 once again faces a relatively smooth path through a Republican-controlled Legislature. But a Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, waits with the potential of a veto pen. Bullock, who ran with the backing of abortion rights supporters, is not taking a position.
"The governor will not comment on specific vetoes while measures are moving through the legislative process, but he maintains his hope that this session is one that focuses on helping Montana businesses create jobs and investing in education," said Bullock spokesman Kevin O'Brien.
Two years ago, the Legislature bypassed Schweitzer's veto pen and went straight to the ballot with a referendum that required minors younger than 16 to receive parental permission for an abortion. It was overwhelmingly approved by voters.
"We believe Gov. Bullock will see it as a commonsense solution, and hopefully he will sign it this time," said Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation.
If the governor rejects it, backers suggested they could get a simple majority of legislators to agree to go around the governor and send it straight to the ballot for voters to decide.
Planned Parenthood of Montana said it is anticipating that possibility.
"We have all seen that as a strategy, and it could come again in the future," said communications manager Lindsay Love.
The abortion debate is expected to come up several times this session. Other proposals include another effort to advance a constitutional "personhood" amendment that defines when life begins, and a constitutional amendment saying there is no right to an abortion.