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Committee splits on party lines over 'shield law' for gender-affirming care

Maine State House at twilight with snow in front and lights on
Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A legislative committee split along party lines on Thursday over a proposed "shield law" to protect health care professionals who offer gender-affirming care to transgender individuals.

Maine already has protections for medical professionals who provide abortions to women from states where abortions are banned or access is restricted. The bulk of those protections come from an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills in 2022. The bill that was endorsed by a majority of committee members on Thursday would strengthen those protections for abortion providers and expand them to health care professionals who offer gender-affirming care to transgender individuals.

The vote in the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee was 8-4, with all Democrats supporting the measure and all Republicans opposed. The measure now goes to the full House and Senate for consideration.

Under the bill, LD 227, hospitals and doctors would not have to comply with demands for information on patients from states access to care is restricted. More than a dozen other states have so-called "shield laws" for gender-affirming care while at least 17 have such laws to protect abortion providers.

Many of those laws have been enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, effectively handing regulation of abortion back to the states. The culture war over abortion has since expanded to gender-affirming care, which can include hormone therapy, surgery and other types of care.

"I wish we were not in this situation in the United States," Democratic state Rep. Anne Perry of Calais, the bill's sponsor, said prior to Thursday's committee vote. "I would be much happier if this was something that I felt we didn't need to do, quite honestly. But I brought this forward in good faith. And I definitely will be supporting this bill."

But Republicans suggested that the bill could violate the rights of parents of transgender children or encourage kidnapping and trafficking of minors across state lines. Bill supporters responded that the measure would not change any laws related to parents' rights in Maine or laws allowing the prosecution of illegal activity, such as kidnapping.

Republicans also raised concerns about harming the relationship between law enforcement agencies in Maine and other states. And they accused Democrats of a lack of transparency because the text of the bill was released only days before the public hearing.

"I think this whole process is shameful," said Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, who was one of the four votes against the bill.

Last week, the proposal drew national attention after the attorneys general from 16 states sent a letter threatening legal action if Maine enacts the bill. All of the attorneys general represent states that have restricted access to abortion and/or gender-affirming care.

In their letter to Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, Gov. Janet Mills and Democratic legislative leaders, the attorneys general portrayed the bill as an attempt to bully officials in other states. The group took particular issue with language that would allow health care providers in Maine to counter-sue states that go after them for providing gender-affirming care.

"In America, we have the right to disagree," the group wrote. "Maine has every right to decide what Maine's laws are and how those laws should be enforced. But that same right applies to every state. One state cannot control another. The totalitarian impulse to stifle dissent and oppress dissenters has no place in our shared America."

Frey responded a day later by calling the concerns raised by his counterparts "meritless." He also accused the other attorneys general of attempting to intimidate supporters of the bill in Maine.

"We do have a right to disagree and I fully concur that one state cannot control another," Frey wrote to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti. "Recognizing these shared values, I welcome your respect for Maine's ability to decide what access to health care people in Maine receive, free from interference by out-of-state actors."