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Controversial bill to expand abortion access passes committee in party-line vote

Dana Peirce, the Falmouth woman who inspired a proposal from Gov. Janet Mills to allow an abortion later in a pregnancy if a doctor deems it necessary, speaking at the State House on Monday
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Dana Peirce, the Falmouth woman who inspired a proposal from Gov. Janet Mills to allow an abortion later in a pregnancy if a doctor deems it necessary, speaking at the State House on Monday

Democrats in the Maine Legislature have advanced a controversial bill that would allow abortions later in a pregnancy, setting the stage for what could be the most contentious and emotional debate of the legislative session.

As expected, Friday's 7-3 vote in the Judiciary Committee fell along party lines, with Democrats voting in support and Republicans in opposition. That partisan divide is likely to carry through to the House and Senate as lawmakers debate whether to expand access to abortion in Maine at a time when many states are banning or restricting access to the procedure.

Under current law, abortions are only allowed in Maine after the point of viability — about 24 weeks — when it is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother. Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership have proposed eliminating that time restriction and, instead, allowing an abortion during the final months of a pregnancy whenever a doctor deems it to be medically necessary.

The committee had heard from several women who learned late in their pregnancies that the fetus had a fatal anomaly. But they had to travel to Colorado or other states to receive an abortion. Although such instances are rare, supporters like Portland Rep. Matt Moonen say Maine's law should allow those women to receive care close to home.

"It has become clear to me, although I would have said our abortion laws were fine a while back, that there are people falling through the cracks who are being harmed by their inability to get care in this state," Moonen says.

The bill, LD 1619, had the backing of abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Maine Women’s Lobby but also organizations such as the Maine Medical Association. It was sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, as well as more than a majority of the legislators in both chambers.

But the bill energized abortion opponents, who dominated a public hearing last month that lasted nearly 20 hours. More than 600 people testified in opposition to the bill during the marathon public hearing as groups such as the Christian Civic League of Maine organized a massive, grassroots campaign against the measure.

Opponents called the measure "extreme" and suggested it will allow third-trimester abortions right up to the point of birth with the equivalent of a doctor's note.

“The proposed legislation will make Maine one of the most extreme jurisdictions in the world by allowing abortions up to birth,” the House Republican caucus said in a statement. “We can only hope and pray that members of the House and Senate respond to the overwhelming public reaction to this proposal and reject it. Maine’s people have spoken; it is up to all lawmakers to listen.”

While Friday's vote was not surprising, the way it played out was unusual.

The committee tried to vote on Thursday but had to reschedule because of constant interruptions as members left to cast votes on the House floor. Republicans on the committee briefly tried to block Friday’s vote by pointing out that not enough members were physically present in the room to constitute the “quorum” needed to cast votes. In response, one of the Democratic members who had been attending virtually dropped out and Jackson quickly appointed another senator, Democratic Sen. Jill Duson of Portland, to serve temporarily on the committee.

Republicans also accused Democrats of limiting public attendance on Friday by providing less than 90 minutes of advanced notice about the work session.

"I need the people of the state of Maine and this committee to understand how unhappy I am with how this thing has been handled,” said Rep. Rachel Henderson, R-Rumford. “I know I'm a new legislator but I am not to new to what's right and just."

Four committee members were absent on Friday but their votes are not expected to change the outcome because one of the absent members, Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt of South Portland, is a co-sponsor and a vocal abortion rights supporter.

The focus now shifts to the House and Senate where the debate will be intense but supporters appear to have the numbers to pass the bill. Opponents are already gearing up for another show of force at the State House, however, as the Legislature enters what is expected to be its final two weeks.