Coalition for reproductive rights holds rally in Helena - TAI News
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Akilah Deernose, director of Montana’s ACLU chapter, speaks at rally for reproductive rights. (Richard Manning)

A man in a white coat stepped up to the microphone, then stammered a bit, but his message was blunt and clear: “My name’s Sam Dickman. I’m an abortion doctor here in Montana. I don’t do a ton of public speaking, but this is super important. Every day I see just how critical protecting abortion rights is for patients.”

He was speaking to a small but lively crowd of about 50 advocates for abortion rights gathered at a brew pub in Helena on April 16 to mark a significant shift of gears in the effort to place an initiative, now dubbed C.I. 128, on the November ballot. An ad hoc coalition called Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights has finally cleared a gantlet of legal challenges, allowing it to go into the field with petitions. It needs to gather 60,000 signatures by June 21.

The gathering represented one step in that direction. Just before the speakers began, Martha Fuller, head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, a key group in the coalition, walked to a quiet corner of the pub, took a moment, then accepted a clipboard from a volunteer and signed the petition.

“Right now we sit at a pivotal moment in our state’s history. The people of Montana have the opportunity to proactively protect our rights and secure our rights for generations to come. We must do this,” she said later during her turn at the microphone.

“Every patient I see has their own reasons for seeking an abortion, and whatever reason that is, it’s the right one,” Dickman said. He now practices in Helena and was a lead plaintiff in legal action that cleared the measure through the state Supreme Court. He said he draws on experience from earlier work in Texas, where abortion laws have become increasingly restrictive.

“I saw patients suffer because of the abortion ban,” he said. “I saw patients travel hundreds of miles to get abortions out of state. I saw patients who had no choice but to continue unwanted pregnancies, even pregnancies that resulted from sexual assault.” Then his voice broke with emotion.

Katie Madison is also a health care provider, with 30 years of experience both as a midwife and now as an administrator of a community health center. She said the battle against abortion rights nationwide already is having an effect in Montana, even though abortion remains legal in the state for now. Abortion access now rests on a court decision, so the initiative’s backers are seeking a constitutional change to place the right on more solid ground.

“Since the fall of Roe we are seeing an alarming increase in bad pregnancy outcomes due to the steady decline in available care,” Madison said. “Being a champion for reproductive health care is not extreme. It’s just common sense. It is understanding with absolute certainty that all people are experts on their own lives.”

The issue of fundamental rights also brings the American Civil Liberties Union to the coalition. Akilah Deernose, director of Montana’s ACLU chapter, stressed that point in her remarks.

“It’s crystal clear that extreme politicians are scared of voters in Montana having their say. We shouldn’t live in a world where we are unsure whether our children and our grandchildren and beyond will have and enjoy the same freedoms we do,” Deernose said. “The fact that the people who keep us alive and healthy face legal consequences for simply doing their job is unacceptable.”

The coalition is soliciting volunteers to help blanket the state by circulating petitions. By law, the effort must gain not only 60,000 signatures but also 5% of the voters in each of the state’s 34 legislative districts. Fuller said a website to sign up volunteers has already seen an overwhelming response, with nearly 400 sign-ups.

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