Gov. Mills introduces bill to expand abortion access as Democrats line up in support
The legislation would allow abortions to be performed after viability of the fetus as long as a physician determines it is necessary.
BY PENELOPE OVERTON STAFF WRITER PORTLAND PRESS HERALD 4/12/2023
Gov. Janet Mills formally introduced her bill to expand access to abortions later in pregnancy Tuesday, and it already has enough Democratic and independent support in the House and Senate to effectively guarantee its passage.
The bill, An Act to Improve Maine’s Reproductive Privacy Laws, changes the standard for post-viability abortions, allowing them whenever a licensed doctor deems it necessary instead of requiring the health or life of the mother to be at risk. Fetal viability typically occurs at around 24 weeks.
“The legislation introduced today removes these inflexible limitations from law and, instead, states that the personal decision about whether to have an abortion later in pregnancy will be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor,” according to a late-afternoon press release from Mills’ office.
The announcement included statements of support from a list of vested stakeholders, ranging from the Maine Council of Churches to the Maine Medical Association to the ACLU of Maine, suggesting the bill sponsors had worked ahead of time to line up their support for the bill’s exact wording.
Among them was the Maine Medical Association, which didn’t take a stand on the bill when Mills first introduced it. The group supports access to abortion before viability, and for fatal fetal medical issues, but said at the time it needed more clarity about when a post-viability abortion could occur.
Its president said Tuesday MMA stands steadfast with Mills in defense of the health care of all Mainers
“The reasons why people seek abortions are complex,” said Erik Steele. “All medical care, including the very personal and private decision of abortion, is best determined in an office by patients and trusted health care providers focused on consensus, evidence-based medical decision-making.”
Steele, a family doctor in Scarborough, continued: “Doctors understand better than anyone the anxiety, fear and differing personal circumstances of each patient, including the real-life impacts of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting.”
While most bills are allowed just ten co-sponsors, L.D. 1619, presented by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, was signed by a whopping 75 House co-sponsors and 20 Senate co-sponsors, a simple majority of both chambers. All co-sponsors were Democrats or Independents.
The bill must still wind its way through a committee, which will hold a hearing and work session on the merits of the proposal, but unless one of the co-sponsors changes course, that will all be a formality – the bill came out of the Revisor’s Office with enough support to virtually assure its passage.
The best shot for Republicans to stop the bill will be in the House, where Mills will need all co-sponsors and Ross to tip the scale her way. That assumes that none of the seven Democrats who are not listed as co-sponsors or any House Republicans vote in favor of the bill.
The seven House Democrats who didn’t co-sponsor: Mana Abdi of Lewiston, William Bridgeo of Augusta, Michel LaJoie of Lewiston, Anne Perry of Calais, Joseph Perry of Bangor, Ronald Russell of Bucksport, and Bruce White of Waterville.
Christian Civic League of Maine, one of a handful of anti-abortion groups that have tried to lead a multi-pronged campaign to stop a slate of abortion expansion bills but especially Mills’ bill, tweeted about the depressing co-sponsor calculus: “Sad day for Maine.”
Senate Majority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, called abortion a difficult issue with high emotion on both sides. The last thing that Mainers need, he said, is an “extreme” bill to push people even further apart on n already divisive issue.
“Look, I get that Maine people are generally supportive of women’s access to abortion,” Stewart said. “But this is radical overreach by the Democrats whose bill has come due from Planned Parenthood for the millions it put into their races.”
Stewart thinks the Mills bill was designed to keep “donors happy and not mainstream Mainers.”
In February, however, a University of New Hampshire poll revealed about two-thirds of Mainers said they supported abortion after 24 weeks if a doctor deemed it medically necessary. The survey sampled 800 people from all corners, political parties and age groups in Maine.
On Tuesday, advocates cheered the bill’s introduction and the support it garnered among lawmakers.
“Thirty years ago, Maine’s Reproductive Privacy Act helped set the standard for our rights,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “It’s time to update the RPA to ensure that it keeps pace with our knowledge and experiences.”
The Maine Council of Churches applauded the bill for taking the decision to end a pregnancy out of the government’s hands and placing it into that of the patient and their doctor. The group contends Maine’s current abortion law falls short for a small group of women who need abortions care later in pregnancy.
“Our state currently requires families in the midst of unimaginable pain and crisis to travel out of state,” said Director Jane Field. “This bill will provide Mainers and their medical providers the freedom and the privacy to make these decisions safely here at home.”
The bill language released Tuesday does not include any specific conditions or limitations but leaves the decision up to the patient and physician about what circumstances would make abortion necessary.
The legislation also removes criminal penalties for doctors performing later-in-pregnancy abortions for reasons other than risk to the life or health of the mother. State law classifies those as Class D crimes now, the highest class of misdemeanors, punishable by up to 364 days of jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
A public hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled.
Mills has said she was inspired to propose her legislation by the story of a Maine woman, Dana Peirce of Falmouth, who had to fly to Colorado to end her 32-week pregnancy after a scan revealed a rare, painful and undoubtedly fatal genetic mutation.
Opponents argue that the Mills bill is too broad and could legalize later-in-pregnancy abortions that do not involve fetal anomalies. Stories such as Peirce’s are heartbreaking, they say, but could be addressed by expanding the post-viability exemption list.
Opponents accuse Mills of reneging on her campaign pledge to leave the state abortion law alone.
After introducing the bill, Mills pushed back at critics and called it a rational, compassionate proposal that would help people like Peirce and not open any abortion floodgates. She said she didn’t break any promises – that voters knew they were electing an ardent abortion defender.
The number of people seeking abortions after the first trimester is small. In 2021, the most recent year data is available, 94% of the 1,905 abortions conducted in Maine were done within the first trimester of pregnancy, or up to 14 weeks. The remaining 107 occurred before 20 weeks.
Abortion-rights advocates note the chilling effect of Maine’s existing viability restrictions. The state law allows abortions for any reason through about 24 weeks, but doctors won’t do them after 20 weeks out of fear that imprecise gestational dating could lead to prosecution.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, which essentially made abortion a state-controlled issue, about half of the U.S. states enacted or began discussing abortion bans. In Maine, which has a strong abortion law, the issue helped Mills win a second term in November.