Anti-abortion protesters line outside the State House in Augusta.
Participants in the annual anti-abortion rally surround the state house Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Augusta, Maine for the "Hands Around the Capitol Rally and March." Credit: Joel Page / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republicans teased a slow path toward restricting abortion access if they win control of the State House in the 2022 election.

Maine has some of the nation’s strongest abortion protections. They would remain intact if the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is overturned but Democrats keep control of the Blaine House and Legislature. Those laws have proven durable, with lawmakers turning back anti-abortion bills when Republicans last had full control of Augusta after the 2010 election.

The Monday leak of a draft Supreme Court decision that suggests the court could strike down Roe has galvanized anti-abortion factions during a time when lawmakers in Maine and elsewhere have become more polarized on the subject, according to Planned Parenthood  scorecards from last year. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has expanded abortion rights.

But anti-abortion Republicans, including Mills’ 2022 opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, outlined no clear statewide strategy. Some nodded to public opinion here, saying the upcoming election will determine whether they will try to dismantle recent expansions or go further. New restrictions are unlikely to come all at once.

“The end of Roe v. Wade is not the end, it’s the beginning,” said Mike McClellan, a former Republican lawmaker and the policy director for the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine.

Roe has been in effect since 1973, although states are allowed to place some restrictions on when the procedure is allowed. In Maine, abortion rights are protected under the Reproductive Privacy Act, signed into law just over 20 years ago.

Mills led two major expansion efforts: covering abortion under Medicaid for eligible recipients and allowing more clinicians to perform the procedure. They have remained in place as hundreds of restriction attempts were introduced across the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion policy.

LePage attended anti-abortion rallies regularly during his tenure, saying during his 2014 reelection campaign that he opposed “killing babies as a form of contraception” as a dig at Planned Parenthood. Maine Republican Party delegates adopted a platform on Friday saying they believe in the sanctity of life from “conception to natural death” and calling for strict limits on discussion of LGBTQ issues and sex in schools.

But LePage has been cautious on the issue during his latest campaign, issuing a roundabout statement reiterating his anti-abortion stance and saying late-term abortions are “disturbing to most people.” His strategist, Brent Littlefield, did not answer specific questions.

Going up against those laws immediately would be a challenge, McClellan said. Instead, he said his group would work to educate people about alternatives to abortion, such as foster care services and crisis pregnancy centers. Those could be small steps in the decades-long fight to outlaw abortion, but he said the Civic League would be in the fight “until all life is valued.”

An email to supporters from the Civic League underscored that, urging supporters to not jump to conclusions: “The panic of pro-abortion voices in our state may create the impression that this is the end of abortion in America. It is not.”

Abortion-rights supporters sounded the alarm, with Nicole Clegg, the vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, saying Maine’s strong protections should not comfort them and turning to the November elections.

“We should be really clear-eyed about that if we lose Roe in the next month or so, and we now have 19 to 26 states without access to safe and legal abortion, our opposition is going to move to states like Maine and try and restrict our rights,” she said.

Efforts to enshrine abortion access as a constitutional right, such as measure Vermont residents will consider, are possibilities, Clegg said. But such amendments need two-thirds support in both legislative chambers to go to Maine voters and that is unlikely to happen on this issue.

If Republicans gained control of the State House, an immediate effort to roll back abortion protections en masse may not come. Rep. Kathy Javner, R-Chester, an anti-abortion health committee member, said she was not sure Mainers would support restricting the service, a nod to the two-thirds of Mainers that back abortion rights, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

But she believed another attempt to remove the Medicaid coverage such as one she sponsored last year could succeed. Further efforts should be shaped by what constituents want, she said.

“It’s going to be a long-term process,” she said.

BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.