Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Knudsen sabotages our well-being by opposing abortion safety zones

by Marilyn Marler
| October 1, 2023 12:00 AM

Montanans cherish our personal liberty and privacy. We expect to make private medical decisions for our own bodies. Montana’s Constitution explicitly guarantees our right to privacy, which Montana courts have affirmed includes the right to abortion.

Yet abortion rights are constantly under attack. On Aug. 25, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen joined 13 state AGs and anti-abortion groups in a lawsuit to overrule safety zone laws. Safety zones are areas near health care facilities where anti-abortion protests are restricted. Currently, Montana’s safety zone law prohibits “approaching within 8 feet of a person” to “protest, counsel, or educate about a health issue” if the person “does not consent” and “is within 36 feet of” a healthcare facility.

Safety zones are needed because there is a history of violence towards abortion providers and facilities. There are many examples of harassment and intimidation, many of which go unreported. We need safety zone laws strengthened, not rotted away.

I sponsored a bill to strengthen safety zone laws last legislative session — HB 570. People seeking health care do not deserve to have their physical and emotional safety threatened by anyone for any reason. My bill sought to hold people accountable for ignoring safety zones. While abortion opponents have constitutional rights to gather and protest, they must respect others’ privacy and safety. HB 570 sought civil charges against safety zone violators. I expected the bill hearing to be difficult, and it was. Most of the committee was hostile and the bill was tabled on a party-line vote.

Although HB 570 didn’t pass, I’m proud to have carried it and will continue to advocate for patient and provider safety. People need abortions for many different reasons. All of us know and love someone who has an abortion, although they might not have discussed it with us. Without safety zones, people, patients, and health care workers suffer.

I know this from experience. My primary care physician works at a clinic that provides full spectrum health care, including abortion. A few years ago, I went in for a visit and had to park a half block away since the parking lot was full. That day, a group of abortion protestors had blocked the sidewalk near the entrance. I stepped off the sidewalk into the street and did my best to ignore them. They made graphic, overly personal, and unsettling statements as I walked past. I thought, “No one should have to listen to this when going to the doctor.” I was concerned because there is a history of abortion protestors using violence, and it is reasonable to fear what

protestors will do next. At the bill hearing for HB 570, a person described being trapped in their car by abortion protestors at the doctor’s office. Everyone entering or exiting a health care facility deserves basic safeguards, regardless of the reason for their visit.

Knudsen and others argue that safety zones infringe on First Amendment rights of protestors. This is simply not true. Safety zones don’t prohibit protestors from expressing opinions. They simply place reasonable regulations on where they can exercise those rights.

Our AG should protect all Montanans’ safety. Instead of emboldening harassment and intimidation tactics, AG Knudsen should ensure that we live up to our values of privacy, freedom, and compassion. Safety zones are essential and should be strengthened, not dissolved.

Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula.

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