Birth Rights 

Looking back—and ahead—at reproductive rights in MT

It’s hard to decide which is more imponderable, how far Montana has come in 30 years in the area of reproductive rights, or how far it has to go. Either way, the reality is a jarring reminder of how much can change within one generation, and how much remains the same.

It was, after all, just 30 years ago that Planned Parenthood of Missoula first opened its doors to just seven women. Back then, landlords were reluctant to offer the clinic a one-year lease, fearing that it wouldn’t survive that long. Only a year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized birth control in all 50 states. At the University of Montana, educational pamphlets about contraceptive devices that were distributed on campus were seized and locked in a vault. It was not uncommon for students, prevented from obtaining birth control unless they were married, to borrow wedding rings from friends in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

For the grislier stories, it’s hardly necessary to look back 100 years, when women who were victims of botched abortions were forced to testify in a court of law against their partner and their abortionist before they could receive medical attention that—perhaps—might save their lives. Nor must we seek out the geriatric set to find Montanans who remember well the days when a pregnant woman would wait on a Missoula street corner for a stranger wearing a red carnation in his lapel to lead her blindfolded to an illegal abortionist, and upon returning not know what had been done to her, whether she would contract an infection, be able to bear children again or bleed to death in the days to come.

“Thirty years in my lifetime doesn’t seem that long ago, but I remember those days like it was yesterday, and I want to tell you, we never, ever want to go back to that,” says Joan McCracken, executive director of Intermountain Planned Parenthood, which operates Planned Parenthood chapters in Missoula, Billings, Great Falls and Helena. McCracken was in town last week for a speech by Planned Parenthood of America President Gloria Feldt who had to cancel her visit due to a weather delay.

Feldt’s speech was delivered by McCracken, and the travel snafu served as a gentle reminder of just one of the many barriers to reproductive services women can face in Montana. As McCracken notes, only 16 percent of all U.S. counties have abortion providers and in Montana, only six counties out of 56 offer abortion services.

In the year 2000, we might laugh at the archaic verbiage found in Montana law, such as the language removed only a few years ago that referred to condoms as “sex-inciting devices.” But there’s nothing funny about the 200 bills introduced by the 1999 Legislature that sought to restrict access to abortion, a trend that shows no sign of letting up.

The state of sex education in Montana offers little more grounds for optimism. Historically, sex education has been left up to individual school districts to decide, with no state mandates or official guidelines. In October 1999, the Board of Public Education, after three years of work and a series of statewide hearings, adopted new “health enhancement standards” for K-12 students. Under the new requirements, which don’t take effect until 2004, districts still retain the option of making sex education optional for those students whose parents don’t want them to participate. Says one staffer with the Office of Public Instruction, “Basically, we tell the districts that you’ve got to teach it, but how in depth you go is your call.”

These days, Montana’s most visible sex education campaign is the Montana Abstinence Partnership (MAP), established last year with a five-year, $189,439 grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. MAP’s mission, which targets children ages 10-17, is to promote abstinence until marriage through a campaign of billboards, public service announcements and school newspaper advertisements.

The federal guidelines mandate that the program “teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems,” and that “bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.”

More troubling, however, is where MAP grant money is being distributed. Among the dozen or so grant recipients are the New Hope Pregnancy Support Center of Butte, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena and the Immaculate Conception Church Religious Education Program of Wolf Point. Pro-choice advocates express concern that public tax dollars are being used to fund religious-based sex education programs, which either ignore or deny a comprehensive spectrum of sex education issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and contraceptives. This despite the fact that the latest figures from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services show that more than 42 percent of Montana teens have had sexual intercourse, 30 percent are “currently” sexually active and nearly one in 10 has been forced to have sexual intercourse.

Fortunately for Montana women, Intermountain Planned Parenthood continues to fight the good fight, having prevailed each time in its legal challenges to the many laws passed by the Legislature to restrict reproductive services. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled to issue a major decision on the issue by June, and the possibility that the next president will be George W. Bush, who describes himself as “ the most anti-abortion governor in America,” Feldt speaks bluntly: “The stage is set for a return to life before Roe.”

Happy birthday, Planned Parenthood. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

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