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By Austin Amestoy
Legislative News Service UM School of Journalism 

Lawmakers hear arguments on transgender, healthcare, abortion in controversial week

Montana 67th Legislative Session

 

January 28, 2021



Anti-Transgender Bills Draw Opponents

Lawmakers have advanced two measures aimed at banning transgender women and girls from playing women’s sports and blocking transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming treatment after facing a storm of opposition from concerned citizens, parents, businesses and medical organizations.

Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, sponsored House Bill 112, also called the “Save Women’s Sports Act.” The bill would require transgender women and girls to compete with others of their gender assigned at birth at the elementary, high school and college levels. Fuller also sponsored House Bill 113, designed to restrict access to puberty-blocking drugs, hormone treatments and surgery for minors with gender dysphoria.

Fuller, who coached women’s athletics for years, posed HB 112 as a solution to a problem of athletes assigned male at birth out-competing other female athletes, despite evidence brought by opponents who said the problem is non-existent.

“Allowing males to compete as women in female sports will result in women once again being shouldered aside to stand below the awards podium and forced to cheer the accomplishments of men,” Fuller said during the bill’s first hearing on Jan. 18.

But, a deluge of opponents of the bill slammed it as unconstitutional and an attack on transgender youth in Montana.

“Just like the bathroom bill that this committee killed in 2017, the state has no business policing gender, asking schools to police gender, invading privacy, or asking for medical records,” said Laurel Hesse, a representative from the Amercian Civil Liberties Union of Montana, referencing a bill from two sessions ago that would have required people use a bathroom that aligns with their sex assigned at birth.

Hesse said the ACLU is prepared to sue if the legislation passes.

The bill did receive some support, including from amateur powerlifter and founder of “Save Women’s Sports” Beth Stelzer, of Minnesota.

“Male participation in female sports is a growing problem in Montana and across the world,” Stelzer said.

Many opponents said the bill fundamentally misunderstands the transgender community and gender dysphoria.

Zooey Zephyr, a 32-year-old transgender woman from Missoula who wrestled competitively until her early 20s and began transitioning nearly three years ago, testified against the bill. Zephyr, who won multiple high-level tournaments and received scholarships, said transgender people do not transition to gain an advantage in sports.

“The image of ‘trans women ruining the integrity of women’s sports’ paints a false picture of life as a trans woman,” Zephyr said. “It misses why trans people transition in the first place, which is to lead a happier life.”

More than a dozen people testified in support of the bill, and more than 50 testified against it.

A second hearing also brought controversy and passionate testimony as lawmakers heard arguments on whether to move forward with a measure to fine doctors between $500 and $50,000 for providing gender-affirming treatments, like puberty blockers, to transgender children under the age of 18.

Later in the week, Fuller sponsored an amendment to HB 113 that broadened the scope of procedures blocked by the bill, added a provision to prohibit doctors from issuing referrals to transgender kids, and removed the fine for doctors who violate the bill. Instead, the attorney general would be responsible for enforcing the bill, and individuals could bring legal action against doctors for providing gender-affirming treatment.

Fuller called upon a lifetime of working with children to explain why he sponsored HB 113.

“This is a simple bill,” Fuller said. “It protects children, and only children, from consequences that they do not know about and that they should not be allowed to undergo until they are an adult and free to make free-will choices.”

But another flood of opponents, including parents of transgender children and dozens of healthcare organizations, blasted the bill as dangerous for transgender youth and a likely path to increased rates of depression and suicide among the demographic.

SK Rossi, representing the cities of Missoula and Bozeman, said that seeing the Legislature considering bills that would “bully” kids for being who they are is “heartbreaking.”

“These bills are divisive, they’re cruel, and Missoula and Bozeman will not stand by while our residents—especially our kids—are put in the crosshairs of state policy,” Rossi said.

Jaime Gabrielli told the committee that she’d made many mistakes during her “less than graceful journey” as a mother to her 16-year-old transgender son, but said she knows that being transgender “is not a choice.” Gabrielli said gender-affirming treatments helped her son on his own journey.

“This is a choice that often comes as one of two remaining options: end life, or transition,” Gabrielli said. “When dying by suicide is a statistically high outcome for your child, you don’t wait to do something to help them. You do everything you can to keep your child alive.”

Both bills passed out of committee on 11–8 votes, with one Republican, Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, R-Billings, joining the Democrats on the panel in voting against the measures. The bills now head to the full House for debate.

Legislature Hears Slate of Bills to Restrict Abortions in Montana

Four bills seeking to limit abortion access in Montana will now be debated by the full House of Representatives after passing on party-line votes in the House Judiciary Committee and after drawing passionate testimony from the public.

The measures, if signed into law, would ban late-term abortions, limit access to abortion-inducing drugs, require doctors save the life of an infant if born alive after an abortion, and require women be given the opportunity to view a live ultrasound before an abortion procedure.

Three hours of charged testimony began on Tuesday morning when the hearing opened on House Bill 136, also called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, sponsored the bill, and told committee members to focus on testimony about the unborn fetus, rather than the rights of the parents.

If it becomes law, HB 136 would make it a felony offense to perform an abortion 20 or more weeks into a pregnancy, based on the point at which proponents said an unborn fetus can feel pain.

Proponents included anti-abortion physicians and advocates, including Kaitlyn Ruch, a junior at Helena High School and member of Students for Life of America. Ruch said she and her brother were adopted, and that she was grateful their birth mothers chose to go through with their pregnancies.

“The thought that an unborn child can be intentionally killed within their mother’s womb when they are capable of feeling pain is heartbreaking,” Ruch said.

Opponents voiced concern over the bill’s legality and its potential intrusion on the right to privacy guaranteed by the Montana Constitution, and called into question the science behind choosing 20 weeks as the benchmark for banning abortions.

“This one-size-fits-all ban leaves women in potentially dangerous positions and does nothing to protect their health,” said Laura Terrill, a representative from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.

In total, 17 people testified in favor of the bill and eight testified against.

A second bill heard Tuesday would make it harder for women to obtain abortion-inducing drugs by restricting delivery of the pills through mail and requiring a physician to conduct an in-person exam of the woman prior to prescribing the drugs. It would also outlaw the drugs in schools and on college campuses.

Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, sponsored House Bill 171, and said its purpose was not to restrict access to the drugs, but to protect women from what she called “dangerous drugs.”

Opponents of the bill said the rate of complications from chemical abortions is lower than those from surgical abortions.

Susan Liebel testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion lobby. She warned the committee against allowing “DIY abortions” on college campuses, and said that the bill would protect women.

“The reality is that the dorm bathroom is the new abortion clinic,” Liebel said.

Kelsen Young, the executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, strongly disagreed with the idea that the bill protects women. She said it would strip women of autonomy over their own bodies.

“House Bill 171 measures up to be one of the most offensive and hurtful pieces of anti-choice legislation I have seen,” Young said. “And I have been in the Montana State Capitol for almost 20 years.”

Two more anti-abortion bills arrived in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning sponsored by sibling legislators from Kalispell.

Rep. Amy Regier brought House Bill 140, which would require abortion providers to offer patients the opportunity to view an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion.

“The key to this bill is ‘offer,’” Regier said during her opening remarks. “The patient is not required to view or hear.”

The bill faced a lineup of supporters and opponents similar to the previous anti-abortion measures.

Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion organization, called upon her own experience with abortion, in which she said her doctor did not allow her to see an ultrasound before undergoing her abortion.

“When we as a society do not ensure that aboriton facilities provide women and girls with the information we’ve asked for, it can have devastating consequences,” Foster said.

Much debate swirled among proponents and opponents over how to meet the “informed consent” requirement for medical procedures. Supporters of the bill argued that ultrasound images better inform the pregnant woman of the state of the fetus, while opponents argued the legislature should not insert itself into the patient-doctor relationship.

“What that informed consent process specifically looks like, and what information should be provided—that should be left between the patient and the provider,” said Greg Dorrington, a representative from the Montana Medical Association.

Amy Regier’s brother Rep. Matt Regier brought House Bill 167 before the committee, and said existing law does not go far enough in protecting infants potentially born alive following an abortion.

Any providers who do not supply life-saving treatment to an infant born alive following an abortion could be fined up to $50,000 or face up to 20 years in prison under the proposed measure.

“This bill should not be debated,” Regier said, “Yet here we are today.”

One of the bill’s opponents, Dorrington of the Montana Medical Association, received a grilling by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who asked him if the legislature has a compelling interest to legislate against medical procedures that are “harmful to human beings.”

Dorrington said the board of the MMA is against any legislation that seeks to disrupt the ability to provide care according to best medical practices.

All four bills passed out of the committee Thursday, with 12 Republicans voting in favor and seven Democrats against.

James Bradley contributed reporting for this story.

Lawmakers Try Again for Protections for Direct Patient Care Clinics in Montana

A bill vetoed by former Gov. Steve Bullock in previous legislative sessions is getting a fresh look in the 2021 Legislature and supporters say it promises expanded options for Montanans seeking affordable healthcare.

Senate Bill 101 would establish legal protections for doctors operating “direct patient care” clinics across the state. Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, sponsored the measure, and described it as a “deregulation bill.”

Direct patient care clinics offer healthcare to patients without an insurance provider “middleman,” allowing them to pay per visit or through a monthly fee. Proponents of the bill, including two doctors who own such practices, said the direct care system allows them to offer lower prices and spend increased time with each patient.

Dr. Todd Bergland, owner of Fountainhead Family Med, a direct patient care clinic in Whitefish, said cutting insurance out of the process alleviates massive amounts of paperwork that often make it difficult to take time for patients.

“It is possible to be a caring, thorough provider in that system—there are many—but one must swim mightily upstream to do so,” he said.

Opponents of the bill included Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, a health insurance company, which provided an amendment supported by the bill’s sponsor that would stipulate that direct patient care doctors can’t collect insurance money on top of their clinic’s fees. John Doran, a representative from the company, said the company would support the bill with that amendment.

Some on the committee questioned if people could subscribe to a direct care clinic and still buy insurance to cover emergencies and surgeries, which Smith clarified would still be possible.

The bill passed out of committee with Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s suggested amendment in an 8-3 vote and now will be debated by the full Senate.

House Committee Hears Bills to Tackle Missing Indigenous Persons Crisis

On the same day the Senate advanced a measure to extend the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, the House Judiciary Committee heard arguments for a slate of bills that would continue but also expand on the work of the panel.

Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, is sponsoring three bills in the House of Representatives: House Bill 98 would extend the task force for another two years, and House Bills 35 and 36 would establish a commission to review cold cases and provide grant money to train response teams.

The bills are a product of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, which met between sessions to assess the best way to break down the jurisdictional barriers members say are still preventing solutions to the MMIP crisis.

Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, the sponsor of a similar bill in the Senate, said the legislation would further critical work begun in 2019.

“This is the first attempt in Montana that we’ve taken to start addressing this issue, and I do believe we’re on the right path,” Small said.

A representative from the Montana Department of Justice, which administered the MMIP Task Force, signaled new Attorney General Austin Knudesn’s support for all three bills.

A wide array of organizations and members of the public testified in support of the bills, including Keaton Sunchild, a representative from Montana Native Vote.

“I, like I’m sure Representative Peregoy, am tired of having to come in front of everybody and talk about how important this is. Families are tired of having to look for their loved ones,” Sunchild said. “Let us keep proving programs like LINC work.”

LINC, or the “Looping in Native Communities” grant, was awarded to Blackfeet Community College to establish a missing persons reporting site and database. Without the passage of House Bill 98, the database will not be made into a public app or be fully integrated for Montana’s tribes.

Some Republican committee members asked what was being done to address the root causes of the MMIP crisis, like drug trafficking.

“What we’re dealing with right here in this room with the legislation we have is probably the best we can do without the federal government doing their jobs,” Small said, citing his frustration with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for not stepping up to do more.

Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.

 

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