Abortion bills draw massive crowds and emotional testimony at Maine State House
The emotional debate over abortion took center stage at the State House on Monday as hundreds of people waited hours to testify on several bills aimed at securing access to abortion care.
Gov. Janet Mills and abortion rights supporters are pushing their case at a time when many Republican-controlled states are moving aggressively in the opposite direction. The bill at the center of the controversy, LD 1619, would extend access to abortion beyond the point of viability, which is about 24 weeks, to later in a pregnancy in the extremely rare circumstances when a doctor deems it medically necessary. The only exception now is to protect the life or health of the mother.
Speaking with reporters Monday morning, Mills sought to put the bill into the broader national context as she portrayed the proposal as an effort to expand upon Maine’s decades-old, guaranteed access to abortion despite the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year.
"Instead, we are taking the decision out of the law and away from politicians and following the best medical practice to put it in the hands of women and their doctors,” Mills said.
But outside of her office, the four floors of the State House were crammed with abortion opponents who had turned out to oppose a bill that they portray as extreme. Among them was Amber Hines of Bradford, who arrived at the State House around 10 am, fully anticipating a long day waiting to testify against a bill she sees as a "life and death" issue.
"I came prepared: chargers, battery packs, food, snacks, water, contacts,” Hines said with a laugh around 6:30 p.m. — more than eight hours after she arrived, as she sat with her husband Derek on a couch underneath the cavernous State House dome.
More than 300 other opponents were listed ahead of her to urge lawmakers not to loosen restrictions on post-viability abortions in Maine. But the Bradfords, who are farmers, planned to camp out on that couch until she’s had a chance to voice her concerns.
"I feel like this is a very critical issue – it’s life and death and I felt that it was worth my time and effort,” Hines said. “You know, some things we feel like we have control over, don't have no control over. And we probably have no control over today. But I had to try because it's important, so I'll do what I can. This is my little thing. Sitting here today is my little thing I can do."
Hines was among nearly 700 people hoping to testify in-person on the most significant abortion bill to come before the Legislature in years, if not decades
"This was the hardest, most heart-breaking, gut-wrenching situation that anyone could ever face,” bill supporter Zoe Reich told members of the Judiciary Committee. Reich said she was beyond 24 weeks when her doctors discovered severe fatal anomalies during a routine scan. She and her husband now live in Portland but at the time they were residents of New York, which has the same post-viability restriction as Maine. She said she had to travel to Colorado and spend more than $10,000 to terminate the pregnancy.
"Me and my husband were given heartbreaking news about a pregnancy that we were so excited for,” Reich said. “And what we experienced was so much added pain and cruelty because of the law that didn't have to be."
The bill has the support of not only Gov. Mills but also the two lead sponsors, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson. The vast majority of the Democrats who control the Legislature have also signed on as co-sponsors, suggested that Democrats have the numbers to pass the bill, at least on paper.
But while abortion rights advocates may have the Democratic support to pass the bill, they were vastly outnumbered during Monday's public hearing. About 50 people testified in-person in support of the bill. But more than 600 had signed up in opposition as of Monday evening thanks, in large part, to an intensive organizing campaign from groups such as the Christian Civil League of Maine and Maine Right to Life.
Melissa McKinney, a registered nurse from Fort Fairfield, recalled watching a newborn named Harry take in the world around him for the first time outside of the womb in what she described as wild-eyed amazement.
"We have an administration wanting to legalize abortion up to nine months,” McKinney said. “Full-term babies, babies just like Harry, babies just like the ones you love. Please, this is murder of a child. Please kill this bill, not the child."
Bill supporters counter such rhetoric is extreme and not supported by the facts. In 2021, 97% of the abortions performed in Maine occurred in pregnancies during the 15th week or earlier. And none occurred in the 20th week or later. And the bill has the support of broad coalition of groups, from the Maine Medical Association to the Maine Council of Churches.
But multiple pastors and other speakers couched their opposition in religious terms as they talked about abortion as being a violation of their sacred beliefs. Others shared their own deeply personal experiences, whether with abortions that they later regretted or with complicated pregnancies. Tiffany Kreck of Ellsworth fought back tears as she told lawmakers about experiencing contractions at 24 weeks and giving birth in an ambulance to a feisty baby who later died at a Bangor hospital.
"There are no supports for women post-partum written into this bill,” Kreck said. “This is just a dangerous, free-for-all, all-access. And while I wouldn't want abortion abolished altogether, I don't think this is the correct way about expanding it either."
The committee hearing continued well into Monday night. Lawmaker are expected to vote on the bill in the next few weeks.