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New Montana abortion laws were halted just hours before they were to go into effect

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Abortion is once again one of the biggest social and legal debates in the country. Texas has instituted a near-total ban. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments out of Mississippi challenging Roe v. Wade. And in Montana, a district court has narrowly halted three new laws restricting abortion just hours before they were set to go into effect. For more on that, we're joined by Shaylee Ragar, Capitol reporter for Montana Public Radio in Helena. Hi, Shaylee.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what these laws in Montana would have done.

RAGAR: Sure. Yeah, several bills passed through the state legislature last spring that ban abortions at 20 weeks, require providers to offer an ultrasound before an abortion and restrict access to medication abortions. And it's worth mentioning that although people often think of Montana as a solid-red state, we actually had a Democrat in the governor's office for the past 16 years. So Republican majority legislatures here have been passing anti-abortion legislation for some time, but those bills were getting vetoed. That all changed in 2020, when Republican Governor Greg Gianforte won election to office and promised to support restricting access to abortion.

SHAPIRO: And tell us about the legal challenges to those state laws.

RAGAR: Yeah, I don't think it came as a surprise to anyone when Planned Parenthood of Montana filed suit against the state in August. They argue these laws violate Montanans' constitutional right to privacy, free speech of providers and prior legal precedent. They also argue the laws carry hefty penalties for providers but are vague in what constitutes a violation. Planned Parenthood asked the state to temporarily block the three laws I mentioned while the merits of the case are argued in court. Their lawyers say if these laws go into effect before the case is decided, they would cause immediate and irreparable harm that would be hard to undo if the laws are found to be unconstitutional down the line.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the kind of impact that these laws could have on patients in Montana.

RAGAR: I talked with Planned Parenthood of Montana's president, Martha Stahl, about this. And for starters, time is always of the essence when it comes to abortion care. So for people who have a plan for how they'll get care and when, these laws would change those plans overnight. Planned Parenthood says that 75% of the abortions they perform in Montana are medication abortions, and providers sometimes prescribe them via telehealth. So if the law prohibiting that practice is allowed to go ahead, it will be especially more difficult for people who live in rural areas seeking abortion care to get it. That law also requires providers to tell patients risks that experts say are exaggerated. So that's another practice that would change overnight.

SHAPIRO: We mentioned that a district court has temporarily halted these laws. For how long?

RAGAR: Well, the district court ended up granting a temporary restraining order, which has a 10-day expiration date. And it really came down to the wire. That restraining order was signed just six hours before the laws were set to go into effect. But we're still waiting to see if the judge goes further to issue a preliminary injunction on the laws. But if he doesn't do that before Sunday, the policies will go into effect while the case continues.

SHAPIRO: So in Montana, the laws are temporarily stalled, unlike Texas. But the urgency between the two states feels similar. How do they compare?

RAGAR: So Montana's laws that restrict access to abortion definitely don't go as far as the six-week ban in Texas. And Montana is somewhat unique in that our state constitution has strong protections in place for the right to privacy, which Montana courts in the past have interpreted to explicitly protect access to abortion. But I think the ultimate goal in Montana and Texas is the same. Conservatives want a challenge to Roe v. Wade and for the right to abortion to be overturned.

SHAPIRO: Shaylee Ragar, Capitol Reporter for Montana Public Radio, thank you.

RAGAR: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.