Some legislators are raising concerns about their safety and the security of reproductive health care workers after public testimony in the state Capitol earlier this week on a bill related to abortion drew comments about shooting an abortion provider.
On Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee heard debate on a bill that would ask voters to decide on a state constitutional amendment saying life begins at conception, effectively outlawing all abortion.
The bill, from Republican Rep. Greg DeVries, of Jefferson City, is likely to fail. That's because it would need the support of two-thirds of the full Legislature to make it onto the ballot, but only garnered 56 votes in the House. That means it would need 44 votes in the Senate, where party breakdown makes that unlikely.
The way DeVries spoke about the bill on the House floor in February also raised concern among Democrats, when he called out Native lawmakers specifically and said abortion was "genocide against your own children."
Democrats objected to that language, and members of the Indian caucus asked for the Speaker of the House to denounce the comments. DeVries later issued a short apology from the House floor.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Democratic lawmakers pointed to several comments they said were threatening or broke the rules of how hearings are conducted. Those comments included a statement by Steve Wagner, with the Covenant Community Church of Whitehall, who said: "I've done everything in the pro-life movement there is to do except shoot an abortionist, which God and his mercy saved me from."
Comments from Jonah Barnes, a minister in Helena, focused on fear: "You are in a civil office for a reason, and you are accountable to the God of heaven and earth for your conduct. You are not to be bullied around by the fear of others."
That drew objection from Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, who is vice-chair of the committee.
Sands asked committee chair Sen. Keith Regier, a Republican from Kalispell, to direct people testifying to stick to the contents of the bill and not attack the committee.
Regier noted Sands' comments, then let Barnes continue to say: "There is a word used for folks who are afraid to do what is right, and that is of course 'cowards.'"
After another person who testified called on lawmakers to repent, Democrat Sen. Margie MacDonald, from Billings, again objected. MacDonald said the character of committee members was being attacked instead of the substance of the bill.
At that point, Regier said he acknowledged some people were straying from the topic of the bill but added “all of us do get attacked on different bills all the time.”
Bob Wagner, a former state lawmaker from Harrison, called out Sands and MacDonald by their first name, which violates the rules of how members of the public and lawmakers address each other.
"We've had many disagreements in the past. Hi, Margie," Wagner said, first looking at MacDonald and then Sands. "Diane, good to see you. I hope you don't object to me being a little personal here."
After the hearing, Sands said she had concerns both for the safety of lawmakers and those in the reproductive health care field. Sands is a co-founder of the Montana chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Sands pointed to a history of violence against abortion providers in Montana, including the 1993 firebombing of Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula.
“It’s important that we are able to have public disagreements and model to our state and constituents that we can respectfully, passionately disagree about issues and not devolve to creating an environment where we think it’s OK for someone to act with violence or to pick up a gun and shoot someone,” Sands said Wednesday.
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Going forward, Sands said she wants to see a better job from committee chairs to keep hearings in control.
“It is the job of our leadership such as chairmen of committees to make sure that decorum is maintained in those hearings and de-escalate any potentially activity or violence that is outside the scope of the decorum. We need to make sure everyone stays safe,” Sands said.
As a longtime lawmaker, Sands said the hearing Tuesday went beyond past debate on difficult topics, including on similar bills brought in previous sessions.
“The tone on this bill was so dramatically different than anything in my many years up here I have seen,” Sands said.
On Thursday, Regier said he felt some people were "pushing the envelope" and that some comments went too far, adding "It’s a fine line between free speech and stopping people.”
“It is always tough when you have a public hearing and let people have their say,” said Regier, who this session is carrying a bill to require pregnant women be informed of the opportunity to have an ultrasound and listen to the heartbeat before undergoing an abortion.
Senate President Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican, said Thursday he was not yet able to watch the hearing but was aware of concerns and had spoken with some committee members.
“Calling out an individual senator by name is inappropriate,” Sales said, adding other issues he’s heard of were out of line.
Sales said he didn’t believe the comments from members of the public were intentional, but added it's important to be extra-sensitive on high-profile bills.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Democrat from Butte, said what happened Tuesday "has no place in this building and it has no place in the legislative process."
“I think we had a breach in the decorum of the body,” Sesso said. “I think we had a breach in the deportment of citizens who have every right to testify on legislation, but they have no right to threatening, no right to belittle and certainly no right to impose their beliefs and ideology on members of this Legislature.”
As another legislator with several sessions of experience, Sesso said Tuesday's hearing stood out to him.
“I don’t think that we’ve seen anything this egregious,” Sesso said. “I think the emotion’s been there in the past and we’ve had our bouts of inappropriate behavior by both legislators and proponents and opponents of legislation, but this was a little over the top.”
Sen. Jen Gross, a Billings Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she's disappointed in the tenor set by the hearing and pointed to coming bills related to abortion that the committee is likely to hear this session.
“It’s chilling,” Gross said. ‘It does leave a bad flavor in my mouth that has lingered the last few days.”
The Montana Reproductive Rights Coalition issued a statement after the hearing saying it was disturbed by the hearing and wanted a return to respectful dialogue.
“(The coalition) condemns the incitement of violence against doctors and hateful rhetoric used by those testifying in support of an unconstitutional effort to take away a person’s access to safe, legal abortion. No one should fear for their safety when testifying on a bill, nor to access or provide medical care," the statement reads. "Allowing this type of extreme behavior to go unchecked sends a troubling message these types of threats are an acceptable form of discourse when debating the merits of proposed public policy."