By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — It was a telling moment in an otherwise mundane and routine gubernatorial debate Tuesday night.
Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democratic candidate for governor, issued a full-throated endorsement for allowing teen girls to access abortions sans parental consent.
Bullock’s opponent, former Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, offered the opposite view, telling onlookers during Tuesday night’s debate at Helena Middle School that parents should grant permission for their underage daughters — younger than 18 — to get abortions.
The question, posed by debate moderators, touched on Legislative Referendum 120, up for a vote in November. If Montanans approve it, state law would ban doctors from performing abortions on underage girls without parental consent.
Bullock opposed approving the measure, arguing that not all young women come from safe, healthy households where such a sensitive issue might be broached with parents or guardians.
“When a young woman is facing an incredibly difficult decision like an unplanned pregnancy, I sure hope and pray that she has the support of her family and can go to her family and have discussions about this,” Bullock said.
“But I also know that far too often that, unfortunately, young women come from homes where there is physical and mental abuse.”
Bullock says he’s monitored a number of incest cases across the state in his capacity as attorney general.
“We need to make sure these women are protected, can get health care and don’t have to worry about the ramification of dealing with that father — or mother,” Bullock said, winning garish applause from some in the audience.
Bullock failed to mention the referendum, sent to the general election ballot after Gov. Brian Schweitzer rejected the Republican-controlled state Legislature’s try at passing it into law last year, provides strong exceptions for young women from troubled homes.
The measure’s language outlines that young women suspected to be victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse may petition the court for a waiver, ensuring an abortion could be obtained without parental consent if extenuating circumstances necessitate it.
Bullock’s campaign did not respond to inquiries about his skipping the measure’s exception language.
Hill, on the other hand, stands firmly against teen abortion without parental authorization. He believes parents should be involved in such life-altering decisions.
“You can’t give a child an aspirin in school, but you can refer people to have an abortion without parental consent today, and that’s wrong,” Hill told the crowd.
The legislative referendum pits several Montana interest groups against one another.
Planned Parenthood of Montana quickly rushed to Bullock’s side after the debate, voicing its support for his stance in a prepared statement.
“In comparison, Attorney General Steve Bullock shows a striking degree of compassion and understanding that ultimately — no matter the situation — supports the radical idea that every woman should have the right to make this decision on her own and with the people in her life (or her doctor’s office) that she trusts,” wrote Stacey Anderson, the group’s director of communications.
NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, another liberal reproductive organization, is actively working to defeat the referendum. On its anti-LR-120 website, the group warns the measure would endanger Montana’s young women.
“Instead of making it more difficult and dangerous for young women to access reproductive-health services, Montana families would be much better served if state lawmakers would focus on commonsense policies like honest sex education, better birth-control programs, and more-available emergency contraception, all of which could prevent teen pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion,” the group writes.
The Montana Family Foundation contends the measure is less about abortions than about a parents’ right to rear children as they see fit.
“This is a parental rights’ initiative,” a video produced by the group says. “Children do not always know best.”
Montanans for Parental Rights, a conservative organization, joins the chorus supporting the referendum’s passage.
“A girl of any age, even 12 or 13, can get an abortion in Montana without a parent ever knowing about it,” the group warns, dipping into Hill’s rhetoric. “Yet that same child would need her parent’s permission before getting a tattoo or having her ears pierced.”
“It’s not an abortion issue for me, it’s the right to be a parent,” he said. “Voters in Montana should have that right to at least be notified before their child has a major surgery.”
The referendum’s language, however, suggests the measure’s purpose — at least in part — reducing teen abortions.
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at [email protected] You might also catch him on Twitter using the @DustinHurst handle.