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Proposed constitutional amendment on abortion draws crowd but faces uphill battle

Dr. Julia McDonald, a family physician and director of abortion services at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor, speaks on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, during a State House rally in support of a constitutional amendment to guarantee access to abortion in Maine.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Dr. Julia McDonald, a family physician and medical director of abortion services at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor, speaks on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, during a State House rally in support of a constitutional amendment to guarantee access to abortion in Maine.

The issue of abortion took center stage at the Maine State House again Monday as advocates sought to make Maine the latest state to pass constitutional protections for "reproductive autonomy."

But measure is likely to face challenging odds even in the Democrat-controlled Legislature because of the higher threshold needed to send the issue to voters.

The timing of the hearing was symbolic for both abortion rights supporters and opponents, falling on what would have been the 51st anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision protecting the right to an abortion nationwide.

Those federal constitutional protections evaporated two years ago when conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, essentially handing policy decisions on abortion back to the states. And while Maine has among the more permissive abortion laws in the nation, reproductive rights advocates say more can and should be done to protect access to the procedure.

"Lawmakers change and laws can be reversed," Dr. Julia McDonald, a family physician and abortion provider at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor, said during a State House rally attended by about 100 people.

McDonald said that she's had to care for women from other states where access to abortion was restricted or cut off after the Supreme Court decision. Speaking before Monday's public hearing, McDonald said a proposed constitutional amendment would ensure that future generations of Maine residents have the freedom to control their own reproductive decisions.

"I am urging our elected officials to pass LD 780 so that the voters of Maine can have a direct say in the future of reproductive autonomy in this state," McDonald said.

Maine already has a law protecting women's ability to access abortion services and expanded that law last year to lift restrictions on abortions later in a pregnancy when a doctor deems the procedure to be medically necessary.

As proposed, the constitutional amendment would state that "every person has a right to reproductive autonomy" and that neither the state nor any political subdivision can infringe on that right "unless the denial or infringement is justified by a compelling state interest and is accomplished using the least restrictive means necessary."

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard roughly six hours of sometimes emotional testimony on the bill, LD 780. Supporters portrayed the proposed amendment as a way to keep politicians out of health care decisions. Opponents, meanwhile, decried abortion as immoral and predicted that passage of the amendment would only open the door to more procedures later in a pregnancy.

Darcy Good of Winslow said fetuses are not "blobs of cells" but are instead "little human beings" that deserve protection.

"How does this amendment protect the unborn?" Good said. " There are just too many gray areas in this bill to enshrine it in our constitution. Call it a slippery slope or a Pandora's box or whatever you like, if this resolution is passed I predict a day will come when you will deeply regret it."

Abortion rights supporters have successfully used the June 2022 Supreme Court decision as a rallying cry to enact additional constitutional or legal protections in seven states during the past two years.

The turnout for the morning rally and the public hearing was modest compared to last spring, when more than 1,000 people crammed the State House for a public hearing that last more than 20 hours. The bill to lift Maine's restrictions on abortions performed in the final months of a pregnancy galvanized the anti-abortion movement in Maine.

But opponents failed to block the bill, which was a top priority for Democratic leaders, including Gov. Janet Mills.

But this year's proposal faces a more difficult path. That's because it takes two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to send a constitutional amendment to voters. And while Democrats still hold the majority of seats in both chambers, they don't have super-majorities. And Republicans are expected to largely oppose the bill.

But bill sponsor Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, urged her colleagues to give voters the choice.

"The best way to take abortion out of politics and politics out of abortion is to acknowledge that this is fundamentally a personal decision and should be protected as such," Vitelli told Judiciary Committee members. "That is what this proposal intends to do. I hope we as legislators have the courage to pass this resolution and get it out to the voters for their decision."

Abortion has proven to be a powerful messaging tool for Democrats in Maine and nationwide since the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. So even if the constitutional amendment fails to pass the Legislature this year, Democrats and abortion rights supporters are expected to campaign on the issue this year.