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How abortion providers in Montana remain open despite political attacks

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Abortion remains legal in Montana, but every surrounding state - Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota - has moved to ban or severely restrict it since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Montana's constitution guarantees medical privacy, but the handful of abortion clinics operating there do so under political attack. And in the past, there have been acts of violence. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports on efforts to protect providers as anti-abortion rhetoric heats up.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Thirty years ago, Willa Craig stood in front of her abortion clinic in Missoula, Mont., which had just been burned down by an anti-abortion activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLA CRAIG: Good afternoon, and welcome to the former and current site of Blue Mountain Clinic.

BOLTON: The camera focuses on the sagging roof and broken windows, revealing the building had been completely gutted by the fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRAIG: And this morning, Missoula, Mont., learned that there is no place in America that is safe from hateful, misguided groups.

BOLTON: The arson was one incident within a particularly violent time for the anti-abortion movement around the country. Clinics weren't just burned down. It was a time when abortion providers were murdered for their work. The violence continued in Montana the following year. A clinic that performed abortions a few hours up the road in the Flathead River Valley was firebombed in 1994. All Families Healthcare was able to reopen. But 20 years later, it shut down again after the son of an anti-abortion activist broke in and vandalized it.

SUSAN CAHILL: I was quite depressed for a couple of years after the office was destroyed.

BOLTON: Susan Cahill is the nurse practitioner who was running All Families when it was vandalized. She wanted to keep it open but decided to retire early because her family worried for her safety.

CAHILL: I called up the rest of the clinics in the state and said, what can we do to get access to this area since I am no longer practicing?

BOLTON: It took four years to find someone willing to reopen Cahill's clinic - Helen Weems, a nurse practitioner who was practicing in California.

HELEN WEEMS: I understood that there was a gaping hole in the safety net of health care for people in the Flathead Valley, that there was no longer an abortion provider in this region.

BOLTON: Weems and the handful of other providers across this vast rural state continue to receive threats, but there hasn't been any violence lately. Opposition to abortion in Montana is now focused at the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, a first for either political party since the 1940s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN KNUDSEN: Taking care of families and young mothers is the next chapter.

BOLTON: Lawmakers are advancing several bills that would restrict abortion. In Montana, Attorney General Austin Knudsen told an anti-abortion rally that he's pushing to overturn the 1999 state Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutional right to an abortion here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KNUDSEN: It is time for the Montana Supreme Court to take up the Armstrong case and reverse it. It's garbage law. It needs to go.

BOLTON: A month later, a group of abortion providers and their supporters held their own event to oppose new restrictions in the state setting aside public funds for court fights over the constitution. Martha Fuller is CEO of Planned Parenthood of Montana.

MARTHA FULLER: And the purpose is to keep us in court. Proof of that is the millions of dollars that were added to the governor's budget for defense of unconstitutional bills.

BOLTON: But Mary Ziegler, a law professor at University of California, Davis, who studies the anti-abortion rights movement, says it's facing some unexpected challenges.

MARY ZIEGLER: If you're the anti-abortion movement, on the one hand, you have, you know, political allies in the Republican Party that do control every level of power. On the other hand, you have polling telling you that voters don't want a lot of what you're doing to happen.

KNUDSEN: Even in evermore conservative Montana, voters last year rejected an anti-abortion ballot measure. So Republicans are still exploring the current boundaries of anti-abortion sentiment. Ziegler says the movement nationwide is fragmented after Roe v. Wade was overturned, and some in it worry about more radical elements.

ZIEGLER: Quite literally, the last thing you want is PR where your movement is being associated with violence.

BOLTON: The National Abortion Federation says anti-abortion violence was already on the rise before Roe v. Wade was overturned. Montana hasn't seen any violence since then, but last year, in neighboring Wyoming, a new clinic in Casper was burned down before it could open. Owner Julie Burkhart blames the increasing rhetoric of anti-abortion rights groups.

JULIE BURKHART: They are highly skilled in getting these lone wolves to come in and do their dirty work so that their hands can remain clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BOLTON: The doors to All Families Healthcare in Montana's Flathead Valley remain open. Like a lot of abortion clinics, the doors open onto bulletproof glass, protecting those inside. Helen Weems, who came here to maintain abortion access five years ago, says doing so now means more than just practicing medicine.

WEEMS: So it's felt like there's been a change in my role from strictly a medical provider to also more of a political activist.

BOLTON: This year, a group sprung up to help abortion providers testify at the state legislature and respond to other political challenges. Hillary-Anne Crosby, who started it, said that recently they started bringing in professional counselors to offer emotional and psychological support for people who work in the clinics, too.

HILLARY-ANNE CROSBY: We don't want to have to be doing triage on, you know, our abortion providers or on our abortion-rights community. You know, we want to make sure that we are there every step of the way so that it does not get to that crisis point.

BOLTON: Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice set up a reproductive rights task force, in part to bring more attention to anti-abortion violence and threats. So far, it's indicted 26 people on federal charges for obstructing access to, threatening or damaging abortion clinics. That's more than the previous three years combined. The FBI is also investigating a series of abortion clinic arsons in states that have maintained or bolstered abortion access.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 4, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report we incorrectly identify Susan Cahill as a nurse practitioner. She is a physician's assistant.
Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.