District Judge delays enforcement of abortion clinic license requirement set to take effect October 1

By Dave Andrusko

HELENA — On Wednesday, District Judge Chris Abbott granted a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of one section of a new state law that would require abortion clinics to be licensed by the state. The date HB 937 was to take effect was October 1.

HB 937, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, “says no one can operate an abortion clinic without applying for and receiving a license from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services,” Jonathon Ambarian reported. “It also directs DPHHS to establish rules for operating a clinic – including things like staff qualifications, required equipment, the ‘architecture or layout of an abortion clinic,’ and a requirement for regular inspections.”

Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula and All Families Healthcare in Whitefish filed suit in Lewis and Clark County District Court, challenging House Bill 937 both because they argued the law was unnecessary and because it “unfairly targeting them as other private health care practices don’t have to follow them,” according to Ambarian.

“Other outpatient clinics—from primary care and gynecological clinics to dental and dermatology offices to birth centers, where pregnant people labor and give birth—operate without mandatory facility licensure,” their complaint said.

Moreover, without clear guidance from the state, they said they “would be in a state of legal uncertainty after Oct. 1 – not knowing whether they could continue to perform abortions.” And DPHHS had not yet come up with the rules, “leaving clinics with no way of getting a license before the law takes effect,” Ambarian reported.

In his ruling, Abbott said DPHHS had acknowledged it’s difficult to enforce the law until the rules are in place. However, he said that there hadn’t been a specific declaration that the state would not enforce it, and that county attorneys might still attempt to prosecute clinics. He said it was justifiable to put in a limited restraining order, allowing the state to continue the rulemaking process, but addressing the clinics’ concerns until a full hearing can be held. He set a hearing for Oct. 30 on whether a preliminary injunction should be granted.

Judge Abbott said this initial ruling “was not intended to address the question of whether the state has a compelling interest in licensing abortion clinics.”