Montana Supreme Court writes own ballot statement for abortion measure

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 5:50 PM, Apr 01, 2024

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has stepped into a dispute over the ballot statement for a proposed measure that would specifically protect access to abortion in the state Constitution. In a ruling signed by six out of seven justices, the court wrote their own language for the statement – a step that should now allow the measure to continue moving forward through the process.

The committee Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights went to the court to challenge Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s proposed language for the ballot statement, after he ruled MSRR’s original proposal was insufficient.

The measure, backed by organizations like Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, would add language to the state constitution, establishing “a right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.”

The ballot statement is language intended to explain to voters what a ballot measure would do. It goes on petition forms as supporters gather signatures for the measure – and on the ballot itself if it qualifies.

MSRR’s proposed statement said the measure “affirms the right to make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion,” and “prohibits the government from denying or burdening the right to abortion before fetal viability” or “when it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

Knudsen issued a decision, saying that statement wasn’t valid because it didn’t give voters “an accurate understanding of how the proposed initiative will change current law” and that it left certain key terms undefined. He submitted his own language, which said the measure “amends the Montana Constitution to allow post-viability abortions up to birth,” “leaves ‘fetal viability’ and ‘extraordinary medical measures’ to the subjective judgment of an abortion provider rather than objective legal or medical standards,” and “may increase the number of taxpayer-funded abortions.”

MSRR said Knudsen’s statement was “argumentative, prejudicial, and inaccurate,” and they asked the court to reinstate their original proposed language.

Justice Ingrid Gustafson wrote the court’s opinion, in which she said both sides had raised valid points. She wrote that Knudsen’s proposed language didn’t inform voters of the measure’s actual provisions and focused on topics it doesn’t discuss. However, she said the court agreed with Knudsen that the measure does more than simply affirm existing rights, and that the ballot statement should clarify that medical providers would make determinations of when an abortion was necessary to protect a patient’s life or health.

The court certified their own ballot statement to the Montana Secretary of State’s Office, an action which should begin the process of submitting the measure for legislative review before it is approved for signature gathering.

Justice Jim Rice was the only member of the court not to sign on to Gustafson’s opinion.

Read the full opinion below: