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Montana AG Blocks Abortion Rights Ballot Initiative From Moving Forward

The measure would enshrine abortion rights in the Montana state constitution.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen arrives to testify during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on January 10, 2024.

Montana State Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) has blocked a proposed ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, alleging that the language of the proposal includes too many separate aspects.

Currently, abortion rights are guaranteed in Montana up to the point of fetal viability — generally recognized to be around 20-24 weeks of pregnancy— due to a state Supreme Court ruling that determined the state constitution protects access to the procedure. The initiative, spearheaded by Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, would make it clearer that abortion rights are in the constitution, rather than relying on judicial case law to protect the right.

The proposed amendment would also guarantee the right to abortion after fetal viability if it is necessary to preserve the life or health of a pregnant person.

Those separate guarantees violate the constitutional standard of ballot initiatives focusing on one issue at a time, Knudsen claimed in a statement explaining his attempt to block the effort.

“Ballot Measure 14 creates an express right to abortion but denies voters the ability to express their views on the nuance of the right,” Knudsen said. “This is classic logrolling and is prohibited by Article XIV, Section 11” of the state constitution.

Attorney Raph Graybill, speaking on behalf of Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, said the group is planning to appeal Knudsen’s findings in order to begin the signature drive, which must start soon in order to qualify for the November ballot.

“In an attempt to keep an abortion rights initiative out of the hands of voters, Attorney General Austin Knudsen has used the power of his office to put personal politics before a fair process to allow Montanans the opportunity to secure their reproductive rights,” Graybill said. “Make no mistake: We will do everything we can, including taking legal action, to ensure Montanans have the opportunity to vote to secure their rights to make decisions about their own pregnancies, including the right to abortion care, in 2024.”

Knudsen has a history of trying to block ballot initiatives he opposes for political reasons using the “logrolling” rationale — he similarly blocked a ballot initiative to create a runoff election system in the state, wherein a candidate couldn’t assume office without obtaining a majority vote, using the same arguments. The Montana Supreme Court overruled his reasoning, siding with the petitioners, who are now gathering signatures for that initiative.

Abortion rights in Montana, though for the time being protected by the state Supreme Court’s actions, are regularly under attack by Republican lawmakers. In 2023, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed seven anti-abortion bills that were advanced to him by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Polling from early last year found that most Montanans oppose efforts to restrict abortion access. According to that poll, conducted by Middle Fork Strategies in February 2023, 39 percent of residents in the state think that abortion should be “legal and generally available,” with another 21 percent agreeing with the statement that “regulation of abortion is necessary, although it should remain legal in many circumstances.” Only 28 percent thought it should only be legal in “the most extreme cases,” while fewer than 1 in 10 residents (9 percent) said abortion should be completely illegal.

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