Judge blocks Montana abortion laws while case proceeds
HELENA — A Yellowstone County District Court judge has blocked three abortion restrictions from taking effect while the case about their constitutionality proceeds. The ruling from Judge Michael Moses came a week after he issued a temporary restraining order in the same case prohibiting the state from enforcing the bills for 10 days following their Oct. 1 effective date.
In a 35-page ruling released to the parties late Thursday, Moses laid out the provisions and implications of House Bills 136, 140, and 171, laws that Planned Parenthood of Montana and other providers challenged as part of a larger suit in August, including the bills’ civil and criminal penalties for medical providers.
The first two bills, respectively, broadly prohibit abortions after 20 weeks gestational age, before the legal standard for fetal viability, and require providers to offer patients an ultrasound before an abortion. HB 171 creates layers of new requirements for patients seeking a medication abortion earlier in pregnancy, and requires providers to distribute specific medical information and report new data to the state’s public health department. That law would also prohibit delivery of abortion-inducing medication through the mail, which the plaintiffs argue is a particular burden on rural patients who would have to drive long distances to see a provider in person.
Moses wrote that the plaintiffs had successfully argued that all three laws appear unconstitutional under the state’s rights to privacy, individual dignity and equal protection, therefore meeting the threshold for a preliminary injunction while the case can be evaluated on its merits.
“[T]he Court further finds that Plaintiffs have also established harm to Plaintiffs and their patients is likely to occur, given that the ‘loss of a constitutional right constitutes irreparable harm,’” the order said.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood of Montana called the ruling a “hard-fought victory.”
“We’re thrilled that the Montana District Court moved to block these unconstitutional laws and protect Montanans’ access to continue accessing safe, legal abortion,” said PPMT president and CEO Martha Stahl. “Planned Parenthood will always fight for our patients and stand up to anti-abortion lawmakers who willfully and cruelly work to undermine access to basic health care.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who is defending the state in the case, said Moses’ order “unfortunately deprives women and unborn children of commonsense health protections.”
While a preliminary injunction is not a ruling on the constitutionality of the challenged laws, Moses wrote that provisions in the legislation directly violate the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Armstrong v. State, which found that the right to access an abortion is protected under the state constitutions right to privacy. That ruling has held for more than two decades, providing protection to abortion access beyond federal protections.
Attorneys for the state can now decide whether to continue to argue the case before Moses in Yellowstone County, or appeal the preliminary injunction to the state Supreme Court.
Last week, legal proceedings in the case were thrown into turmoil when state attorneys petitioned to remove Judge Gregory Todd from the proceedings on the basis of alleged bias. After a whirlwind of filings at the district court level and before the state Supreme Court, Todd stepped down from the case, allowing Yellowstone County to select his replacement, Moses, at random.
Versions of the bills challenged by PPMT have passed through the Republican-held Legislature in recent years only to be vetoed by the state’s Democratic governors. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a package of abortion restriction bills into law earlier this year, delivering on a keystone promise of his political agenda.