When irony enters the womb 

Sen. Dan McGee says he wants to protect Montana’s unborn children. So why is the Republican from Laurel threatening to cut state funding for prenatal care?

A longtime abortion foe, McGee has proposed a constitutional amendment that would establish the protection of unborn life as “a compelling state interest.” With such an amendment in place, says McGee, lawmakers could pass laws governing abortion without fear of the Montana Supreme Court overturning them.

McGee cites a law passed in 1995 that required prior notification to parents before a girl under 18 could have an abortion. The law was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was upheld. Then in 1999, Montana’s high court ruled that the law violated a right to privacy granted in the state constitution.

By amending the constitution with language that specifies the state’s compelling interest in the unborn, McGee says laws regulating abortion would be protected from such reversals (Montana’s overturned laws include a 1999 measure to ban so-called “partial birth” abortions and a statute that attempted to stall abortions with a mandated waiting period).

Sen. McGee’s amendment has already passed the Senate as SB 274. The proposal goes before the House sometime in March. If it passes there, the measure will be placed on the ballot as a statewide referendum in 2004.

If SB 274 fails to clear the House next month, McGee plans to play political hardball, vowing to oppose state-funded efforts to promote reproductive health as payback.

For instance, McGee says that in the interest of protecting unborn life, it might be necessary to deny funding to programs aimed at protecting unborn life.

McGee’s logic works like this: Without his amendment, the Montana Constitution lacks specific mention of the human fetus. Given this omission, the senator asks, “What basis does the Department of Public Health and Human Services have for offering these services? There’s no rational basis. There’s no point in having that kind of care.”

By “that kind of care,” McGee means sex education and prenatal care for expecting mothers and the unborn. If his amendment fails, the senator will single out programs like the one that provides medical home visits for women with high-risk pregnancies. McGee might also target a modest grant that gives pregnant women vouchers they can use to purchase healthy food at the Missoula Farmer’s Market.

“It doesn’t seem like that’s supportive of what he’s aiming at,” says JoAnn Walsh Dotson of the state’s family and community health bureau. “To take that money away would not only result in human costs, but financial costs. The state would not be a winner.”

Also on the losing end of McGee’s ambitions is a woman’s right to choose, says a coalition of groups rallying against the senator’s proposed amendment. InterMountain Planned Parenthood and Montana NARAL [National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League] are lobbying state representatives, telling them that “[McGee’s] amendment will authorize making pregnant women second-class citizens. This amendment would give the government an interest in every fetus—from conception. Pregnant women’s privacy will become subverted to the state’s interest in the fetus—even if that contradicts the woman’s own desires.”

Apparently, Sen. McGee doesn’t see the contradiction.

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