A bill that would have asked voters to decide on a state constitutional amendment saying life begins at conception and outlawing all abortion appears to be defeated after an initial vote in the state House.
Republican Rep. Greg DeVries' personhood bill would need approval from two-thirds of the full Legislature, or 100 votes, to go on the ballot in 2020. But Thursday it received only 56 votes in the House.
While the bill will move to the Senate, it's unlikely to pick up the needed 44 votes there, where Republicans hold 30 seats and Democrats have 20.
The bill would have added to the state constitution language saying the word "person" applies to "all members of mankind at any stage of development beginning at the state of fertilization or conception."
Lawmakers who supported the bill called abortion "murder," while those opposed said it would have dangerous limitations on access to birth control and a woman's ability to determine her own health outcomes.
“Personhood begins at conception, and we need to restore to those persons their rightful due process of law,” DeVries, a Republican from Jefferson City, said in support of his bill.
DeVries then moved on to comments targeted at Native American lawmakers in the House, a dialogue that drew immediate rebuke from Democrats.
“My friends in the Indian caucus, abortion is a plague on Indian culture and the genocide against your own children. One cannot value and celebrate a culture if that culture is murdering a future generation,” DeVries said.
At that, Democrat Rep. Casey Schreiner, the minority leader in the House, along with other Democrats stood up in concern over DeVries’ words.
“We object. Highlighting race and culture is way off topic," Schreiner, of Great Falls, said.
Acting Speaker Rep. Casey Knudsen, of Malta, directed DeVries to drop the topic.
DeVries then directed his comments specifically toward the Democratic caucus, whose members almost universally opposed the bill.
He also connected abortion to a national movement to raise awareness about the sexual harassment of women.
"Hashtag Me Too," Devries said. "What greater abuse or harassment of young girls is there than killing them in the security of their mother's womb?"
The lawmaker also referenced another phrase that's become a rallying call for women.
"You seek to protect and defend the person and rights of females. In that we are united. But in this matter of causing harm, violence and death to girls and women you stand alone, guilty. Nevertheless, you persist," DeVries said.
Democrats who spoke in opposition to the bill said it violated the U.S. Constitution, while one Republican said that considering the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court the landmark abortion access decision of Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Democrats also said the bill would keep women from being able to access birth control and make their own decisions about health care.
"This is directly legislating my health care, my body and my life," said Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, a Democrat from Billings. "The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld time and time again that my health is between me and my health care provider and my husband, if I choose to include him. Affirm that you trust me to know myself and to know my body."
The House on Thursday also narrowly passed a bill that would say doctors can not use patient consent as a defense against a homicide charge in the case where they aid a patient in dying. Physician-assisted death is not a clear legal issue in Montana, after a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling affirmed a Billings man could die with the help of his doctor but did not clarify if it was a constitutionally guaranteed right.