The Maine House of Representatives has given preliminary approval to a bill requiring the state’s Medicaid program and private insurers to cover abortion services.
The vote broke mostly along party lines, with the Democratic majority voting to pass the bill after more than two hours of debate. The proposal brought out both sides of the contentious abortion debate, which has intensified in Maine and nationally as Democrats and Republicans court voters increasingly motivated by the issue.
For more than 40 years, Congress has prevented the use of federal funds from being used to pay for an abortion, except for extreme instances such as rape or to save the mother’s life.
The prohibition, enshrined in what’s known as the Hyde Amendment, does not prohibit states from funding abortion services through their Medicaid programs as long as only state funds are used. But 35 states, including Maine, have long blocked the use of state Medicaid funds.
The bill approved by the House Tuesday and sponsored by Democratic Rep. Joyce McCreight of Harpswell would end that prohibition.
“This bill puts an end to using a woman’s access to insurance coverage as an unequal, discriminatory barrier to a safe, legal abortion,” she said during the floor debate.
McCreight’s bill requires the state to fund abortion services through the Medicaid program at an estimated cost of $375,000 a year. It also requires health insurers that provide coverage for maternity services to also cover abortion services.
Democratic Rep. Victoria Foley of Biddeford says the current prohibition in the state’s Medicaid program puts low-income Mainers at a disadvantage, leaving them with the prospect of having to pay for expensive abortion services out of their own pocket.
Foley says the bill, L.D. 820, would end that discriminatory practice.
“L.D. 820 is about equity and access, so that people’s health care choices are not limited by how much money they make, or what their background is,” she says.
And supporters of the bill say the impact could be significant.
According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of reproductive-age women enrolled in Medicaid — roughly 8 million women — reside in states like Maine that restrict abortion services from coverage. Those statistics have led 15 states to change their Medicaid programs so that state funds can be used.
Maine could become the 16th, a prospect that worries pro-life activists and legislators like Republican Rep. Richard Pickett of Dixfield.
“I believe, personally, that life begins at conception. And I do not want my taxpayer dollars to pay for taking the life of a child,” he says.
Pickett described the bill as part of a liberal agenda run amok, with Democrats controlling the Legislature and the governor’s office.
“If there is a positive, Maine people, I believe, are standing up and taking notice and seeing what is actually going on here,” he says.
Pickett’s suggestion that there could be a voter backlash to the proposal may have some merit. Opponents of the bill flooded the hallways before Tuesday’s vote, urged on by the Christian Civic League of Maine, which has made the proposal the topic of frequent action alerts.
But supporters of the bill and pro-choice activists turned out in big numbers, too.
Together, the showing by the two sides illustrates how abortion has become an animating force for a certain subset of highly motivated voters. Winning over those voters has sometimes led to the passage of highly polarizing abortion bills, including one signed by Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp Tuesday that allows bans on abortions as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, roughly six weeks into a pregnancy.
The Georgia bill has been characterized by pro-choice advocates as a massive overreach by Republicans. In Maine, pro-life activists and Republicans are saying the same thing about Democrats’ push to lift a ban on taxpayer funded abortions.
The proposal now moves to the Senate.