AUGUSTA, Maine — The thorny issue of abortion rights came to the forefront Thursday in Augusta with the introduction of three bills that sparked strong words even before they were introduced to lawmakers.

Pro-choice and pro-life activists pre-empted the introduction of the bills during competing news conferences only a few steps from one another but miles apart ideologically. At issue were three measures scheduled to be introduced Thursday afternoon to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. All three are similar to bills that failed in previous legislatures.

LD 760, An Act Regarding Informed Consent to an Abortion, would require doctors and health care workers to provide information about alternatives to abortion and remove a requirement in current law that the woman request the information to receive it. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eleanor Espling, R-New Gloucester, also would require women to be provided with “scientifically accurate information about the fetus,” information about medical benefits that pregnant women may qualify for, and counseling about the father’s liability for support.

Members of a group called the Maine Choice Coalition who gathered Thursday at the State House characterized the bill as imposing a “script” on doctors who already provide a range of services and information to their patients.

“This bill would force doctors to tell women unnecessary, coercive information designed to change their minds about whether to end a pregnancy regardless of whether the patient wants the information or the doctor wants to give it,” said Megan Hannon, director of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “Maine law already ensures that women receive the information they need to make informed decisions. The sole intent of this bill is to shame, judge and confuse women.”

Maine law requires doctors to provide written information and allows them to talk about options if the patient asks.

Activists in favor of Espling’s proposal called it a “pro-woman, pro-information, common-sense bill” that would lead to “true informed consent” for every abortion patient because it forces them to hear certain information before making a final decision.

“This is about right to know,” said Espling. “It’s about women having all of the information they need to make important decisions in their lives and not being denied access to information they need to make those decisions.”

LD 1193, An Act to Allow a Wrongful Death Cause of Action for the Death of an Unborn Child, was described by the Maine Choice Coalition as giving legal rights to fetuses who have reached 12 weeks gestation.

Kate Brogan, vice president for public affairs for the Family Planning Association of Maine, called the bill a threat to the ability of pregnant women to make decisions about their lives.

“A pregnant woman and her fetus should never be considered as separate, independent or even adversarial entities,” said Brogan. “Government has no place interfering with those private medical decisions.”

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, insisted to the Bangor Daily News on Thursday morning that the bill does not give legal rights to a fetus, but allows a family to file a civil suit. She said the determination of heirs is necessary under Maine law to allow families to sue.

“A family should be able to sue a drunk driver or negligent doctor who causes the death of an unborn child but currently this is not possible,” said Volk, who added that Maine is the only New England state that does not allow families to sue for wrongful death damages.

As submitted, Volk’s bill applies to a fetus at 12 weeks. Opponents have argued that Volk’s bill would, for the first time, establish in Maine law that a fetus is viable at 12 weeks. She said Thursday that she’s considering an amendment to change it to 24 weeks.

“This bill does not give any rights to the fetus. It gives rights to the mother,” she said during a press briefing Thursday morning. She also noted that 40 states have passed some form of similar legislation.

The third abortion-related bill presented Thursday, LD 1339, An Act to Strengthen the Consent Laws for Abortions Performed on Minors and Incapacitated Persons, would repeal the state’s law concerning consent for a minor’s abortion and require written consent of a parent or legal guardian before a minor or incapacitated person could have an abortion. The bill gives probate or district courts the power to waive that requirement if the woman involved is sufficiently mature and well-informed or if the woman can demonstrate that she is a victim of physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

Ruth Lockhart, executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Care Center in Bangor, said there are too many instances where a woman could put herself in danger by inquiring about an abortion with her parents or guardians.

“We hope every young woman can involve her parents in such a serious decision, but there are times when that is simply not possible,” said Lockhart. “These exceptions are often very complicated and trying to address them with a one-size-fits-all law could have tragic results. This bill isn’t going to make it easier for girls who can’t talk to their parents to start doing so. It will only make it harder for our most vulnerable teenagers to get the care they need.”

Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, who introduced the bill on behalf of its primary sponsor, Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said Thursday morning that the bill would ensure that parents are informed if their daughter wants an abortion, just as they are required under Maine law to be notified of body piercing or cosmetic surgery.

“Maine law would never allow minors to be tattooed simply with consent of the tattoo artist,” said Guerin.

During a May 2 Maine Choice Coalition news conference attended by approximately 20 female legislators, Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the Senate chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, expressed frustration that the Maine Legislature keeps having to deal with bills designed to limit reproductive rights more than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion. On Thursday, Susan Leighton of Maine Right to Life said part of the reason for these new proposals is to equalize abortion laws state by state. Pro-life supporters also pointed to a 2011 Gallup poll showing that 87 percent of respondents favor requiring doctors to inform patients about certain risks related to abortion and that 71 percent favor requiring parental consent for instances in which women younger than 18 seek an abortion.

The Judiciary Committee hearings drew crowds that overflowed into two other rooms of the State House and continued from early Thursday afternoon into the evening. The committee is scheduled to hold work sessions Friday to vote on recommendations that will be made to the full Legislature.

BDN political analyst Robert Long contributed to this report.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.