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Maine House narrowly approves expansion of abortion access to later in pregnancy

Demonstrators opposed to a bill to expand abortion access gather in the halls of the Maine State House on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. The Maine Senate voted to expand abortion access Tuesday following an emotional debate, advancing a proposal that would give the state one of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country.
David Sharp
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AP
Demonstrators opposed to a bill to expand abortion access gather in the halls of the Maine State House on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. The Maine Senate voted to expand abortion access Tuesday following an emotional debate, advancing a proposal that would give the state one of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Democrats in the Maine House passed a contentious proposal expanding abortion access to later in a pregnancy. The move increases the likelihood that Maine will have some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The 73-69 vote in the House came after a lengthy and fervent debate over a bill that joins Maine with the 19 states that allow doctors to perform abortions later in a pregnancy if medically necessary, if a fetus has a fatal anomaly or in cases of rape or incest.

Currently, abortions in Maine are only allowed after around 24 weeks of gestation to protect the life or health of the mother.

The bill enacted by the House would allow the procedure whenever a doctor deems it medically necessary.

Gov. Janet Mills, who introduced the bill earlier this year, says the change is needed to address the rare circumstances when a would-be mother learns late in a pregnancy that the fetus has a fatal anomaly.

But Republicans, like Rep. Rachel Henderson, of Rumford, argued that the bill might not be used just to prevent the suffering of a fetus.

"That is a very narrow window, and yet we have a huge door that opens up the possibility for full-term, fully viable, healthy human beings to be terminated," she said.

Assistant minority leader Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, speaks during Tuesday’s debate in the Maine House on a bill that would allow abortions later in a pregnancy. The bill advanced, 73-69.
Steve Mistler
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Maine Public
Assistant minority leader Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, speaks during Tuesday’s debate in the Maine House on a bill that would allow abortions later in a pregnancy. The bill advanced, 73-69.

Tuesday's vote in the House followed approval in the Senate, and the result was a sharp departure from last week's House vote that forced Democrats to scramble to find enough support to advance the proposal.

It did so by just two votes.

Post-viability abortions in Maine are rare. There were no abortions after 20 weeks in 2021.

Still, the bill has energized abortion opponents, who have floated the prospect of a people's veto if the governor signs it into law.

Mills campaigned for reelection last year as an abortion rights defender and at one point vowed not to change the current viability restriction.

She changed her position when introducing the bill this year shortly before the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling prohibiting states from banning abortion. Those protections were overturned by the court last year, sending a political shockwave into the 2022 midterm election that boosted Democratic candidates, including Mills and the legislative Democrats who now control both chambers of the State House.

They've since used those majorities to enact an array of proposals expanding access, including eliminating deductibles and co-pays for abortion services and prohibiting municipalities from passing their own abortion rules and providing legal safeguards for providers who treat patients from states with the abortion bans.

But despite more than 95 co-sponsors, including 75 in the House, the governor's post-viability proposal nearly stalled last week in the House after several Democrats joined Republicans in opposing it.

It was saved after Democrats frantically wrangled the necessary votes and spurned a late amendment by Rep. Ben Collings, a Portland Democrat, that would have narrowed the bill by limiting post-viability abortions to lethal fetal anomalies, or rape or incest. Mills had previously criticized such limitations.

Republican legislators fought to have Collings’ bill considered but were voted down by Democrats. The original bill slipped through 74-72, angering Republicans, including House minority leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, of Winter Harbor.

Faulkingham at one point pleaded with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to have the bill reworked. He fumed after his effort was rebuked.

"The stench in this building is overwhelming. I move we adjourn," he said.

Democrats denied the adjournment effort, too. Their victory, however, came with questions about the late Collings’ amendment that interrupted the debate for five hours and sent Democrats scrambling to corral support.

The necessary Democratic votes were less in doubt in the Senate. The bill’s 20 co-sponsors there backed the measure, while only one Democrat opposed it.

The proposal requires additional votes, which are expected to take place next week.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.

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