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Debate over abortion heats up as Gov. Janet Mills' bill to lift restrictions hits Legislature

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, speaks on Wednesday, April 12, during a GOP press conference on abortion at the Maine State House.
Kevin Miller
/
Maine Public
Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, speaks on Wednesday, April 12, during a GOP press conference on abortion at the Maine State House.

The political rhetoric over abortion is escalating at the State House as lawmakers prepare to take up a bill to lift some restrictions on the procedure later in a pregnancy.

At a time when Republican governors and legislatures elsewhere are tightening access to abortion, Gov. Janet Mills and Democratic leaders have said they want to move Maine in the opposite direction. And they appear to have the numbers to do it, at least initially.

A majority of lawmakers in the Democratically controlled House and Senate have signed on as co-sponsors to a newly released bill that would allow women to obtain an abortion after viability as long as a doctor says the procedure is necessary. Current law only allows abortions after viability — which is about 24 weeks — when necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.

Demonstrating the political muscle behind the bill, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, are the lead sponsors of the bill, L.D. 1619. But one day after the bill text was released, Republicans held a press conference where they said Mills and her Democratic allies are pushing too far.

"This bill gives the word 'extreme' new meaning,” said Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn. “It would allow the abortion of a baby up to full term, one that could survive outside the womb. That is extreme. It removes any constraints around viability and it even removes criminal penalties if someone other than a health care provider performs an abortion. We are going back to the dark ages of back-alley abortions with this legislation."

Libby was one of six female Republican legislators who variously decried the governor’s proposal as "evil,” “depraved” and “barbaric." Flanked by dozens of Republican lawmakers during a press conference, they accused Democrats of wanting to allow women to obtain abortions almost right up to the point of birth as long as they can find a doctor willing to say it is necessary. And they said accused Mills of violating her campaign promise not to change Maine's current abortion laws while pushing a proposal they claim run counter to the "reasonable limits" on abortion that most Mainers support.

“It’s my hope that (Democrats) will actually read the bill, think about the implications, think about what they are doing and reconsider,” said Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, the assistant Republican leader in the House. “You don’t have to vote for a bill that you co-sponsor.”

Democrats, in turn, accused their Republican colleagues of using extreme political dialogue to vilify people faced with extremely difficult personal decisions, oftentimes after receiving tragic news about the health of their unborn baby

Bill supporters point out that abortions late in a pregnancy are extremely rare. But they say the bill is necessary to allow Maine women to obtain the procedures locally — and therefore close to their families and support networks — rather than forcing them to make stressful and costly trips to other states.

Statistics from 2021 show that 97% of abortions in Maine occurred during the 15th week of pregnancy or earlier and none occurred 20 weeks or later.

Responding to the Republican criticisms, Democrats said that abortion and all reproductive care are forms of health care and that politicians shouldn’t be involved.

“We talk a lot about making sure that people have access and the freedom to make their own decisions. We want to empowers Mainers to be able to navigate their own health care outcomes,” said Sen. Mattie Daughtry, a Brunswick Democrat who is assistant majority leader. “And this bill recognizes that, that this is about patients talking to their health care professionals and not about politicians in Augusta without medical degrees saying what should happen."

A poll of nearly 800 Maine resident conducted in February by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 67% of respondents supported allowing abortions after 24 weeks if a doctor deemed it medically necessary. Republicans said that survey question was too broad and, instead, point to a national poll by the Associated Press and other organizations suggesting declines in support for abortions late in a pregnancy.

But Sen. Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth said Maine voters clearly sent a message last year when abortion was a top campaign issue.

"You know, Maine people speak when they cast their votes on the ballot — and those votes are reflected in the composition of the House and Senate,” Carney said.

A public hearing has not yet been scheduled on the governor's abortion bill. But Carney, who co-chairs the committee that will review the measure, said it will likely happen in the next several weeks.