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Gov. Mills, Democratic lawmakers unveil bills expanding abortion access

Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she and other State House leaders outlined how they will continue to protect access to abortion care, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she and other State House leaders outlined how they will continue to protect access to abortion care, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills and Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday previewed a slate of bills expanding and protecting abortion access in Maine, including one that would allow the procedure late in a pregnancy if recommended by a doctor.

Maine law currently allows abortion up until fetal viability — about 24 weeks — and prohibits it unless the health or life of a mother is in danger.

Abortion-rights advocates are generally supportive of the 1993 law because it protects access to the procedure in the vast majority of cases; in 2021 roughly 97% of the abortions in Maine came in or before the 15th week of pregnancy, according to state data.

The governor's bill would waive the current viability standard for abortions deemed medically necessary but currently prohibited.

During her Tuesday press event at the State House, Mills used the example of a Yarmouth woman who was forced to travel to Colorado for an abortion after she discovered at 32 weeks that a rare genetic mutation would have prevented her child from being able to breathe once born.

"Fundamentally, these decisions are decisions that should be made by a woman and her medical provider," Mills said. "And fundamentally, no one in Maine should have to leave our state or leave the support of family and friends and potentially have to spend thousands just access the care they need."

The proposal is one of several backed by Mills, who leaned into her abortion-rights record during her reelection campaign after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that had barred states from banning the procedure.

The governor is also backing measures that would protect abortion providers from criminal prosecution and would end state data collection that could expose patients and providers, although details of the legislation were not immediately made available.

Republican Sen. Trey Stewart was asked about the legislation after he and GOP leaders held a press conference at the State House criticizing the Mills administration's oversight of the state's embattled child welfare agency.

While the Senate minority leader said he couldn't address specifics of the yet-to-be unveiled abortion bills, he sought to juxtapose the focus of his caucus with the Democrats who control the Legislature.

"Isn't it fitting, right, that we as pro-life folks within the Legislature are here talking about how to save the lives of children that the state is going to take responsibility for, and is failing, and resulting in dead children, and they're upstairs talking about how to expand abortion and kill more fetuses," Stewart said. "Apparently, that's their priority. Ours is focused on child welfare and making sure that the children we're responsible for are going to be able to grow up."

House Republicans released a statement Tuesday saying the governor's proposal to expand access to the procedure is too extreme.

Maine Republicans faced voter backlash against anti-abortion politicians in the recent election after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling.

Nevertheless, many Republican lawmakers oppose abortion and are likely to oppose many of the bills Democrats are proposing this year, including one enshrining Maine’s current abortion rights law in the state constitution.

While Republicans are in the minority and unable to stop the governor’s bill, they have enough votes to block the constitutional measure from going to voters for approval.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.