HELENA — The Montana House Judiciary Committee on Friday advanced a bill that would ban coverage of abortion procedures by health insurance plans offered through the state exchange.
The Republican-backed bill would prohibit coverage except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered. Abortion would not be covered by the plans when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest.
The 12-7 vote with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed came a day after President Joe Biden instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to consider rescinding Trump administration regulations that bar federally funded family planning clinics from referring women for abortions.
Biden campaigned on repealing longstanding federal prohibitions against taxpayer funding for most abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment. But that move would require congressional approval.
Supporters of the Montana bill have said taxpayer dollars should not pay for a procedure that some find reprehensible. Opponents said turning the bill into law would make abortion out of reach for low-income Montana families.
"This is the ultimate government overreach," said Tom Roberts, a retired doctor from Missoula. "It allows our government to dictate to the private sector what type of insurance coverage can be denied to private customers. It puts insured women in the position of potentially having to pay for an expensive medical procedure themselves, a burden that many are unable to afford."
Matt Brower, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, said that including abortion coverage in government subsidized insurance plans "forces taxpayers to contribute to ending the lives of unborn children."
"This bill helps protect the conscience of individuals who do not wish to contribute to funding abortion," Brower said.
The committee hearing on the bill came a day after Gov. Greg Gianforte, the state's first Republican governor in 16 years, signaled his support for placing restrictions on abortion access in the state.
Gianforte promised he would sign at least two of four abortion-related bills already advanced by the Montana House in the first month of the legislative session. Those bills, which have not yet been considered by the Senate, would ban abortion in most cases after 20 weeks of gestation and would require abortion providers to care for fetuses born alive during abortion procedures.
The bill sponsored by by Rep. Jane Gillette, a Republican from Bozeman, and advanced Friday is a repeat of a similar bill that was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, only to be vetoed by then-Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
In his letter explaining the veto, Schweitzer wrote that the bill would violate the state constitution by infringing on women's rights to privacy and access to reproductive health care.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, there are 26 states that have restrictions on abortion coverage in plans offered through health insurance exchanges.
Asked why she did not include a provision in the bill to ensure abortion costs are covered when pregnancies result from rape or incest, Gillette said the bill was based on the vetoed 2011 measure. However, that bill included a provision that abortion would be covered by insurance plans under those circumstances.
In a Jan. 4 email to bill drafter Jameson Walker, Gillette requested that language be removed from the bill draft, saying it could be added again if other lawmakers expressed interest in such a provision.
During the Friday hearing, Gillette said she would be open to an amendment providing coverage for rape and incest victims, but such an amendment was not introduced. Gillette did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bill heads to a vote on the House floor next week.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.