Demonstrators protest outside the federal courthouse in Portland on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, against an anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The number of abortions performed in Maine rose by 16 percent in 2020 compared with three years earlier, doubling the national average and reflecting changes led by Gov. Janet Mills that increased access to the procedure.

The study from the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute released Wednesday found Maine had the biggest percentage-wise increase in abortions in New England during that time period. It was seventh among states, though Maine still had a lower abortion rate than the rest of the country at 10.1 per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44.

That increase is widely attributed to Mills’ expansions of Maine’s abortion laws that have long been among the strongest in the country. They included a 2019 law that mandated abortion coverage in public and private health plans, which Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, was likely the biggest factor.

“People with low income now have more autonomy to make decisions for themselves,” she said.

That is a reference to the Democratic governor’s move to expand coverage under MaineCare. The state also passed a law that year that allowed certain health professionals besides doctors to perform abortions in an effort to expanded access to more rural areas of the state.

All of the changes were opposed by anti-abortion groups including the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine. Mike McClellan, its policy director, agreed that the more liberal abortion policies drove the increase that he said his group was disappointed in.

“We could do a better job on our side of supporting women better and presenting the options,” he said, referring to adoption and foster care.

The U.S. overall saw a rise in abortions ahead of the pandemic, something the Guttmacher Institute said foretold the importance of keeping access to the procedure safe and legal after a draft decision leaked in May showed a U.S. Supreme Court set to overturn federal abortion rights enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Doing so would mean over half the states would be likely to ban or severely curtail abortion or do so immediately. In Maine, Republicans have said they would likely try to repeal recent expansions of abortion laws before instituting sweeping bans if they wrest control of Augusta in a 2022 election pitting Mills against former Gov. Paul LePage, an anti-abortion Republican.

Sharp increases in abortions across the country were not limited to Democrat-controlled states like Maine. Mississippi, whose law banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks is the subject of the case that could overturn Roe, saw a 40 percent jump between 2017 and 2020.

Among the factors both nationally and in Maine could also be economic stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, since the majority of people who get abortions nationally are poor or low income.

“People had to ask themselves if they wanted to start a family when their income was less secure, their jobs might have been less secure, their relationships were less secure,” Clegg said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.