The Maine State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

A bill backed by Gov. Janet Mills and the House of Representatives to end a decadeslong prohibition on using state money for abortion services prevailed in the Senate on Tuesday.

The bill from Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, would counteract a ban on federal funding for abortion by mandating that the state Department of Health and Human Services cover the cost of abortions for eligible recipients of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. It would also require private insurance carriers already providing prenatal coverage to ensure coverage for abortion care. The proposal, though it leaves room for religious employers to claim exemptions, would not allow nonreligious employers to claim religious or philosophical exemptions.

The bill, which includes a fiscal note of just over $600,000 through 2021, won slim support from the House last week after more than two hours of debate. The Senate passed it by a similarly slim margin on Tuesday, 19-16. Democratic Sens. Mike Carpenter of Houlton and Bill Diamond of Windham joined Republicans in voting against the bill.

Bill proponents claim the bill equalizes all women’s access to the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care and does away with current disproportionately beneficial health care policies, which McCreight last week said perpetuated “thinly veiled discrimination” by “restricting those with lower incomes from accessing the care that is available to those with higher incomes.”

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said the bill was “simply an expansion of insurance coverage,” requiring “that insurance companies cover abortion just like any other routine medical procedure.”

But opponents, including Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford, echoed Republicans’ classification of the bill as a “major overreach,” one that would “strip the religious liberty of Maine people through taxation.”

“Maine people should not be forced to have their hard-earned tax dollars used to take the life of a living pre-born child,” Keim said.

For more than 40 years, Maine has adhered to the federal standard on funding abortion care, known as the Hyde Amendment. It ensures women have access to abortion but prevents federal dollars from being used for those services, except in cases of rape or incest, or if a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy.

This federal guideline, however, doesn’t exclude states from using Medicaid funds to cover the cost of general abortion care for eligible recipients, which would be achieved if this bill is passed. It’s an option that 15 states are utilizing, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and one that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the state’s abortion providers are asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to permit.

The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate.

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