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Red states are banning abortion. Maine could become a refuge

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 this week previewed a slate of priority abortion bills that expand and further safeguard access to the procedure.

The governor, Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross each described the proposals as a check against the unrelenting anti-abortion forces that factored in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that had prohibited states from banning the procedure for nearly 50 years. Among the proposals is one that would waive Maine’s current abortion restriction after fetal viability — about 24 weeks — if approved by a medical professional.

It quickly became the focus of criticism from Republicans and anti-abortion activists.

“This runs counter to wide support for current Maine law that restricts abortions after fetal viability,” House Republicans said in a joint statement. “Despite statements suggesting Republicans would seek to change Maine’s abortion law, it is now Governor Mills who is looking to make Maine’s the most extreme in the country.”

State data suggests the gestational preemption proposal would affect only a tiny fraction of abortions in Maine. In 2021, 97% of abortions were conducted in the 15th week of pregnancy or earlier. None were recorded at 20 weeks or later.

The prospect of allowing the procedure later in a pregnancy runs counter to Mills’ comments during the campaign, including during a debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald during which Mills expressed support for the Maine law that currently protects abortion access. When asked whether she would expand or waive the current gestational restriction of fetal viability, she said, “I have no plans to change the current law.”

This week, Mills made her case for change by telling the story of a Yarmouth woman who was forced to travel to Colorado to have an abortion when she discovered at 32 weeks that a rare genetic mutation would have prevented her child from being able to breathe once born.

Colorado is one of six states with no gestational prohibition on abortion. Maine could become the seventh under conditions that will be outlined in the yet-to-be released bill.

"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 to access the care they need."

The story, chronicled in a Maine Public piece in mid-October, is a compelling one even for at least one anti-abortion activist.

“I mean, the case study they gave was hard,” Mike McClellan, policy director for the anti-abortion and evangelical group the Christian Civic League of Maine, told Maine Public after the governor’s announcement. “I don't have a good answer for that case study. That's not the typical case study, but it does happen.”

Faith Adams from Bangor, Maine, protests about abortion, Friday, June 24, 2022, outside the Supreme Court in Washington.
Steve Helber
AP file
Faith Adams from Bangor, Maine, protests about abortion, Friday, June 24, 2022, outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

McClellan also acknowledged that organizations like his are confronting a new post-Roe reality that will make restricting abortion access even more difficult than it has been in Maine. He said allies of his movement will need to reframe their message to compete with the one offered by abortion advocates.

“I wish we weren't so polar because I think both sides want to help everybody,” he said. “But as always in politics it's how you get there.”

As always, reaching any kind of consensus on abortion will be difficult, if not impossible. The governor’s proposal has already elicited a strong reaction from Republicans, some of whom hold deep antipathy toward abortion. They might be emboldened by Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, who blasted the governor’s proposal on Wednesday. And on Thursday, McLellan’s organization sent an alert to activists asserting that abortion supporters in the Legislature “want to legalize killing children who can survive on their own outside the womb.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are digging in, claiming Maine as refuge to abortion bans across the U.S.

“We are serving as a light that inspires others around the country by protecting those who need it and showing exactly how to fight back,” Talbot Ross said earlier this week. “And this work is far from over. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that reproductive health care and family planning is affordable and accessible in every part of the state.”

Trendy bill requests

The Legislative Information Office last week published its list of first-session bill requests by state lawmakers. It’s as voluminous as usual, with more than 2,100 individual submissions.

While the exact language and intent of the legislation is only known for about 200 of those requests, the titles can illustrate the trends and priorities of legislators as well as the party they represent.

For the Democratic majority, the wish list largely aligns with successful campaign issues, plus a smattering of proposals that will no doubt draw claims of paternalism, government expansion or the catchall “woke” from GOP detractors. (“An Act to Allow Hitchhiking at Night” by Democratic Rep. Raegan LaRochelle, of Augusta, is decidedly safe from any such framing.)

In addition to abortion access, Democrats are pursuing bills expanding child care availability and health care, and addressing climate change and affordable housing. There’s also a slew of criminal justice and sentencing reforms that Democrats didn’t highlight on the campaign trail last year, yet continue to be a focus of several caucus members, including from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, whose more than 60 bill requests were dominated by the issue.

Despite its limited utility as a campaign issue last year, Republicans have a distinct focus on scrutiny of public schools, teachers and school curriculum that is currently popular with conservative advocacy groups, donors and media personalities.

Some of the proposals seek to do, or revamp, what is already possible: recalling school board members, making curricula more transparent or allowing students to opt out of lessons deemed controversial. Another requires parental approval for school staff to address a student by their preferred pronoun or name. Yet another bans teachings about race. The latter appears directly at odds with one request by Speaker Talbot Ross, who has a bill titled “An Act to Fund the Integration of African American Studies and the History of Genocide into the Statewide System of Learning Results.”

Speaking of schools, the ongoing concern about school shootings has manifested a dichotomy of approaches: Several GOP sponsored bills seek to arm teachers and school personnel; a Democrat-sponsored proposal would develop “best practices” for lockdown drills while allowing students to opt out of them.

As in recent sessions, PFAS contamination and mitigation continues to be a bipartisan focus. The same goes for energy, although the parties differ on solutions. There’s also a deepening partisan split on mineral mining following the discovery of a $1.5 billion lithium deposit in western Maine. Some lawmakers are calling for an outright moratorium while others are seeking ways to facilitate its extraction.

Word choice is important

Today is the deadline to comment on the phrasing of two citizen initiatives that will appear on the ballot this November, one of which has already drawn millions of dollars in spending.

That ballot initiative seeks to force Maine’s two largest utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, to sell their assets to a quasi-governmental nonprofit that would take over electricity delivery to most Maine residents.

Distilling a complex policy issue, much less a regulatory one, into a “concisely and intelligibly” worded ballot question, as required by law, is not always an easy feat. And groups on either side of the issue frequently spar over that wording.

As proposed by Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office, the Pine Tree Power Co. ballot question would read: “Do you want to create a new quasi-governmental owned power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”

CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, have already spent more than $10 million to oppose the ballot initiative and to support a competing measure that aims to make it harder for the proposed Pine Tree Power to sell the revenue bonds needed to buy out CMP and Versant’s assets. The ballot question committee funded by Avangrid, Maine Affordable Energy, is awaiting word from Bellows’ office about whether it handed in enough signatures to also qualify for November’s ballot on that latter proposal.

The secretary of state’s office is also seeking public feedback on the wording of a second ballot initiative that aims to prohibit foreign governments from electioneering in referendum campaigns. And like the former, this ballot initiative is being pushed by critics of CMP.

In 2021, energy companies spent more than $90 million on both sides of a ballot question aiming to block CMP’s controversial transmission line through western Maine. One of the big spenders was CMP’s partner on the project, Hydro-Quebec.

The proposed wording of that question is: “Do you want to ban foreign governments and entities that they own, control, or influence from making campaign contributions or financing communications for or against candidates or ballot questions?”

The public comment period closes at 5 p.m. Jan. 20. Ways to comment are available here.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson has always been a prolific bill sponsor and this session is no different. He’s sponsoring nearly 80 bills so far, the most of any member of leadership. Among legislative leaders, Talbot Ross is second (63 bills), followed by Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (45), assistant Democratic leader Sen. Matthea Daughtry (39), assistant GOP leader Sen. Lisa Keim (20), House Democratic leader Rep. Mauren Terry (29), Democratic leader Sen. Eloise Vitelli (15), House GOP leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (14) and assistant Democratic leader Rep. Kristen Cloutier (4).
  • The Legislature’s budget-writing committee will begin holding public hearings next week on the Mills administration’s supplemental budget proposal for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on June 30. This will essentially be a dry run for the newly reconfigured Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee as they prepare to tackle Mills’ $10.3 billion, two-year budget. It also gives the other policy committees to get used to the process of reviewing budget items for state departments within their jurisdiction and make recommendations to the Appropriations Committee.
  • Speaking of legislative committees, many of them are getting introductory presentations from state agencies. On Tuesday, for instance, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew will brief the HHS Committee. It’s likely that serious concerns about Maine’s child welfare programs will come up with Lambrew and the following day when the committee is slated to hear directly from officials in the Office of Child and Family Services.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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