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Maine lawmakers consider bills aimed at protecting and expanding abortion access

A long line of visitors waits to go through security at the Maine State House on Monday, May 1, 2023 when lawmakers heard testimony on several bills related to abortion access.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
A long line of visitors waits to go through security at the Maine State House on Monday, May 1, 2023 when lawmakers heard testimony on several bills related to abortion access.

Hundreds came to the State House on Monday to testify on a slate of bills that would protect and expand access to abortion. One of the most closely watched bills sponsored by Gov. Janet mills would lift a ban on abortions later in pregnancy and let physicians and patients decide if it's needed.

Patty Wight spoke with chief political correspondent Steve Mistler about the bills.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Patty Wight: Maine's current laws — similar to several other states — allows abortions up until viability, which is around 24 weeks. Why did Gov. Mills and others think the current law doesn't go far enough?

Steve Mistler: I think the governor and supporters are framing this proposal in two distinct but overlapping ways. The first is to draw this contrast between Maine's laws on abortion rights and those restrictions or outright bans that we've seen in Republican-controlled states since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade last year. In the governor's view, what's happened since Dobbs has been a full-out assault on a woman's right to an abortion and beyond that, a woman's right to make decisions about her body. The second argument that Gov. Mills and supporters are making is that even with Maine's abortion protections, which we've had since the mid 90s, there are circumstances in which Maine women have had to leave the state to get an abortion, even when their doctor recommends one late in a pregnancy. So this two-pronged argument is essentially saying that Maine has abortion protections and those are safe for now. But even those existing protections can get in the way between a woman and her doctor.

And the bill was inspired in part by Dana Peirce. She's a mom from Yarmouth, who found out her son had a lethal fetal abnormality when she was 32 weeks pregnant, but she couldn't get an abortion in Maine. She was at the State House today. Remind us of her story.

Yeah, it's a tough one. Essentially, Dana Peirce was 32 weeks pregnant when she had a routine checkup with her doctor and discovered that her unborn son had this rare bone disorder that so limited the size of his ribcage that his lungs couldn't develop. Had he been born, Peirce says, he could have suffocated to death. And beyond that Peirce says that her son was likely suffering in the womb and that's what prompted her to seek an abortion. Now, there were no doctors to perform the procedure in Maine. And there's some question about whether the state's abortion law would even allow it because of the viability restriction that you mentioned earlier. So Peirce had to travel to Colorado to get the procedure. But it wasn't cheap between travel and out-of-pocket costs. Peirce's family paid tens of thousands of dollars for the procedure. And as she retold the story today, during a press conference with the governor and other legislators, she was really affected by the fact that others might not have the means to do what she did.

"We had those resources. And I was so thankful that we did, but I know, I just knew it wouldn't be an option for someone else, than knowing that someone else might have made a different decision than I did. Someone might want to carry their baby to term that had the same problem. And I would never take that away from them. But I was very glad that I could make that decision and do the most loving thing that I could think of for my son," Peirce said during the press conference on Monday.

So this bill will make it easier for people to make that choice to have an abortion later in pregnancy. And this bill would also do a couple of other things. It would remove criminal penalties for providers who perform abortions. It would also change the way data is gathered to shield the identity of patients. It sounds like Mills sees this proposal as important, not only for Mainers, but also in response to what's happening across the country where many states are restricting access.

Yeah, without a doubt. The governor campaigned heavily on abortion rights last year, as did many other Democrats across the country. And at the heart of their argument was this threat that right wing politicians will stop at nothing to limit or outright repeal abortion access. And here's how Mills described those efforts in Republican controlled state legislatures since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

"I think it is extraordinary and radical to see how, just in recent months, how aggressive the radical right has been in many other states to not only restrict abortion care, but to prohibit it altogether, to threaten to jail women and doctors and medical care providers, to threaten women who suffer miscarriages, to threaten their physician physicians who try to provide them vital care," Mills said.

So Mills and Democrats are basically making the case that Maine should be a refuge for abortion rights amidst these other efforts to limit or outright restrict it elsewhere.

And this is possibly one of the most watched bills this session. It's an issue that many people feel strongly about. What did opponents have to say and how would you describe the atmosphere in the State House today?

I think there were more people at the State House today than I've seen since I began covering the legislature more than 10 years ago. At one point this morning, there was a line just to get into the building that began down Capitol Street, wound up the hill to the state house and then up all four floors of the building, then that was just a sign up to testify for the public hearing. Our colleague Kevin Miller estimated that there were roughly 800 opponents who had signed up to testify as of early this afternoon, and they were about 50 supporters. Now, those numbers may not necessarily reflect popular opinion as it relates to this bill, let's be clear. But it is a testament to how energized this specific proposal has made abortion opponents. Their rally in the Hall of Flags was jam packed. And essentially what they're arguing is that this is an extreme proposal that would allow abortion on demand and until birth. Now, obviously supporters reject that characterization, but it's pretty apparent that this bill has injected new energy into an already motivated movement.

Okay, so there's a lot of opposition, but this is the governor's bill. It has 94 co-sponsors and Democrats control the House and Senate. How likely is it to be defeated?

I think the Democrats have the votes and they didn't strike me as worried about a show of force from opponents today. That might be because the election arguably validated their party's position that abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor. The question is whether this bill will have any kind of tail that might affect next year's legislative elections. In other words, will abortion supporters be as motivated to turn out next year as they were last year? And how does that compare to the voting proclivity of abortion opponents? That's the mystery right now, far less so than the bill's outcome.

On Friday, lawmakers will hold public hearings on several bills that seek to restrict access to abortion.