Montana lawmakers push for ‘born alive’ referendum that will take away family health decisions

As lawmakers in Montana move toward passing LR-131, also known as the “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act,” families in the state who have suffered child loss are speaking up.

The act, which will appear on the November ballot, if made law, would impose criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison or a $50,000 fine on health care providers who do not act to preserve the life of “born-alive infants.” As defined by the ballot language, “infants born alive, including infants born alive after an abortion, are legal persons.” According to the Daily Montanan, the bill’s language stems from House Bill 167, which was referred by the 2021 Legislature to voters in the 2022 general election.

While backers of the proposal claim it will protect infants, several doctors and advocates have noted it fails to acknowledge the feelings of families.

“LR-131 is a piece of propaganda, part of a false narrative created by those who are against individuals and families who want to make health care decisions without interference from the state,” Missoula Dr. Tim Mitchell said during a press conference on Wednesday. According to the Independent RecordMitchell specializes in maternal-fetal medicine and often works with families making decisions in devasting situations. “The outcomes this initiative claims to exist simply do not happen.”

Mitchell noted that the fact forces doctors to intervene in situations where there is no chance an embryo or fetus could survive outside the womb, including when organs or the nervous system do not develop, or labor starts very early in pregnancy (before 24 weeks’ gestation, the commonly accepted earliest viability age of a fetus), the Independent Record reported.

As a result, families whose fetuses are expected to die within days or even minutes of birth—should they survive in the womb until then—are put in an even more difficult position: They’ll be forced to spend their first and only minutes together watching as doctors, under duress and the threat of criminal charges, futilely intervene in situations even when no amount of action is going to change the outcome.

“In these situations, it is critical that the family has the time to process this information and to meet with specialists who have extensive experience with these problems. It is also critical that the family has the ability to make health care decisions for themselves and their unborn child,” Mitchell said.

“This is going to force physicians to intervene in those cases instead of … the family being able to hold this baby and let this baby know that they’re loved,” Mitchell said. “The medical team is going to have to be providing chest compressions, put breathing tubes into the airways that are too small to be able to even accept those tubes.

“It’s really cruel to put families who are in such a tragic situation into even more (and) just make the situation even worse by having to provide these things not because it’s the best medical care but because we’re legally obligated to do it under threat of being jailed for up to 20 years or a $50,000 fine.”

Mitchell also noted that while supporters of the bill claim that it will stop people from having unwanted pregnancies, in reality, the law most impacts those with severe anomalies or complications in their pregnancies.

Samantha Berg, the manager of state advocacy for the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, also noted that the language of LR-131 is not about infant health and safety, as advocates claim.

“There are laws and policies to protect infants, to advance infant health, to make sure infants are treated equally and get the care they and their families need,” Berg said in an interview last week. “Make no mistake about it, this is not about infants. This is about pregnant patients and controlling their ability to make the decisions they would be making with their health care providers.”

According to the Independent Record, several families who have experienced infant deaths spoke up against the bill Wednesday, noting that their decisions should not be dictated by the government.

“The state has no business directing this kind of complex health care, and I hope the voters of Montana understand the implications of this initiative. The proponents of this bill believe that this is a black-and-white issue. They have not been in the room when this life-changing news is given,” Mitchell said. “They don’t have the right to tell Montana families how their loved ones will spend their final and only moments on Earth.”

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