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Maine will have some of the least restrictive abortion laws in U.S. after final vote on governor's bill

The Maine State House is seen Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The Maine State House is seen Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

Democrats in the Maine Legislature on Thursday passed a contentious proposal expanding abortion access to later in a pregnancy, a move that will give Maine some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Abortions in Maine are currently only allowed after around 24 weeks of gestation to protect the life or health of the mother. While 19 states allow post-viability abortions, most do so to protect the mother or in cases of rape or incest. The proposal from Gov. Janet Mills would allow the procedure whenever a doctor deems it medically necessary.

The bill has energized abortion opponents, who have labeled it as “barbaric” and “extreme” while floating the prospect of organizing a people’s veto campaign to overturn it. Mills, who ran as a defender of abortion rights during her successful bid for reelection last year, is expected to sign the bill into law next week.

While Mills campaigned with a promise that she would not change Maine’s gestational restriction, she said earlier this year that the bill is necessary to address the rare circumstances when a would-be mother learns late in a pregnancy that the fetus has a fatal anomaly.

"Fundamentally, these decisions are decisions that should be made by a woman and her medical provider," Mills said when introducing the bill. "And fundamentally, no one in Maine should have to leave our state... just access the care they need."

But Republicans, such as Rep. Rachel Henderson, of Rumford, argued that the bill might not be used just to prevent the suffering of a fetus.

"That is a very narrow window, and yet we have a huge door that opens up the possibility for full-term, fully viable, healthy human beings to be terminated," she said during last week’s debate in the House.

Post-viability abortions in Maine are rare. There were no abortions after 20 weeks in 2021.

Mills and Democrats have rejected assertions that the bill will yield big changes to those statistics.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, have pushed an aggressive abortion access agenda since retaining their majorities last year. Their electoral success is partially attributable to the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade last year.

Maine Democrats have since used those majorities to enact an array of proposals expanding access, including the elimination of insurance deductibles and co-pays for abortion services and a measure prohibiting municipalities from passing their own abortion rules. They’ve also provided legal safeguards for providers who treat patients from states with the abortion bans.

But despite the support of more than 95 co-sponsors, including 75 in the House, the governor's post-viability proposal nearly stalled in the House after several Democrats joined Republicans in opposing it.

It was saved after Democrats frantically wrangled the necessary votes and spurned a late amendment that would have narrowed the bill by limiting post-viability abortions to lethal fetal anomalies, or rape or incest. Mills had previously criticized such limitations.

The bill initially cleared the House by just two votes.

The necessary votes were less in doubt in the Senate. The bill’s 20 co-sponsors there backed the measure, while only one Democrat opposed it.

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