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House Democrats advance Janet Mills' abortion bill with razor-thin vote

Protesters line the hallway leading to the House Chamber, Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The Legislature is working to wrap up the current session before summer break.
Robert F. Bukaty
Protesters line the hallway leading to the House Chamber, Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The Legislature is working to wrap up the current session before summer break.

Democrats in the Maine House have advanced a controversial bill that would allow abortions later in a pregnancy. But the fate of the bill was in question for hours as supporters worked to corral the needed votes.

After weeks of anticipation, Gov. Janet Mills' bill to lift key restrictions on abortions later in a pregnancy received initial approval in the House by just two votes. And as expected, the emotions on both sides were clearly visible and audible beforehand as lawmakers shared deeply personal stories about where they stood on a bill that has galvanized both sides on the abortion issue in Maine.

"I was told that time was the one thing that I did not have because the clock was ticking toward viability," said Democratic Rep. Tiffany Roberts of South Berwick.

She told her House colleagues how, when she was just 19 years old, doctors discovered one of the twins she was carrying had a potentially fatal heart disorder. Most treatments could have been fatal to the healthy twin, so Roberts said she had the option of aborting the other fetus. She decided not to and endured a complicated pregnancy before giving birth to both. But Roberts said Maine's law prohibiting most post-viability abortions made a nightmare experience "exponentially worse."

"Doctors should not be forced to try to prescribe pre-natal care on a time clock. We trust them with so many other life decisions. This should not be an exception," she said.

Abortions are currently only allowed in Maine after around 24 weeks of gestation to protect the life or health of the mother. The bill now pending in the Legislature would allow the procedure whenever a doctor deems it to be medically necessary. Mills and other supporters say the change is necessary to address the rare but tragic circumstances when a would-be mother learns late in a pregnancy that the fetus has a fatal anomaly.

But hundreds of opponents showed up for a May public hearing that lasted more than 19 hours and have packed the State House hallways in recent weeks. Opponents call it "extreme" and overly broad. And they warn that vagueness could allow abortions right up to the point of birth despite language legally requiring doctors to use the "medical standards of care" to determine whether the procedure is warranted.

Rep. Amy Arata, a Republican from New Gloucester, was among the several lawmakers who fought back tears while speaking on the House floor.

"It would allow painful abortions right up until birth without any medical reason. This is not a compassionate bill. If it were, I would vote for it," she said.

Ultimately, the House voted 74-72 to advance the bill, although a handful of Democrats and independents joined Republicans in opposition. But that outcome was far from assured, and Thursday's debate was suspended for nearly five hours as Democratic leaders scrambled to nail down the votes.

If enacted, the bill would give Maine among the nation's most permissive abortion laws at a time when many states are restricting access after last year's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The political tensions rose back to the surface immediately after the respectful debate and nail-biter of a vote.

"The stench in this building is overwhelming. I move we adjourn," said House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor.

That comment drew cheers and applause from abortion opponents watching from the gallery above the chamber floor, earning a quick rebuke from the House Speaker. But Democrats subsequently defeated that motion as well as other Republican procedural attempts to block the bill. Democrats also blocked one of their own from offering an amendment that aimed to clarify the circumstances when post-viability abortions would be allowed.

The bill is expected to pass the Maine Senate as well. The question now is whether the partisan rancor over abortion will spill over to other issues still pending in the closing days of the legislative session.

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