VAN BUREN, Maine — Retired social worker David Cyr sees abortion rights as among his top issues ahead of the midterm elections, but he still talks about the issue with anguish.
“Personally, for myself, I think abortion is wrong,” Cyr said. “But it’s not for myself or Catholics to say what other people’s rights are.”
The heavily Catholic and politically shifting St. John Valley may be the most socially conservative region in Maine, a state with permissive abortion laws. Democrats have put preserving them at the center of the 2022 campaign since the Supreme Court ended federal abortion rights in June, while Republicans have tried to focus on costs and inflation.
The debate could cut another way in northern Aroostook County. Donita Ayotte, 36, of Van Buren, a non-Catholic IT recruiter, called abortion “barbaric from a moral standpoint.”
“There should be parameters around when it can take place,” Ayotte said. “Six weeks, eight weeks, I would be very uncomfortable with someone going past that point.”
Maine’s abortion-rights protections date back to a 1993 law that only bans the procedure after viability, generally considered to be between 24 and 28 weeks. It had significant bipartisan support and was spearheaded by Republican Gov. John McKernan.
Three out of the five legislators from the St. John Valley voted for it. But one of them, then-Sen. Judy Paradis, D-Frenchville, was an opponent of abortion. She only voted for it to stop the bill from being enacted in the Holy Week before Easter.
Even if pro-life sentiment runs high in the Valley, its politicians this cycle are running little differently on it than those in the rest of the state. While Gov. Janet Mills has vowed that her veto pen would stand in the way of Republican restrictions, the anti-abortion former Gov. Paul LePage has said he would veto a 15-week ban and not initiate new limits.
Two Republicans running in the St. John Valley mirrored that line. Former NASCAR driver Austin Theriault said current abortion laws should not be changed, as did Rep. Sue Bernard of Caribou in her high-profile race against Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a one-time supporter of restrictions who has evolved into an abortion-rights backer.
Bishop Robert Deeley of Maine’s Catholic diocese praised the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it would potentially save the lives of “countless unborn children.” But many in the St. John Valley opposed to abortion deny that it is because they are Catholic.
“I believe in not taking a child’s life,” said Robert Lavoie, 57, a conservative-leaning independent from Van Buren.
The church was once heavily involved in staffing Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, said Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society. But the church removed their staff shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided, primarily due to a requirement that they teach family planning to receive federal funds, Pelletier said.
There is overwhelming evidence that people don’t want the government involved in decisions on pregnancy, even in the St. John Valley, said Nicole Clegg, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
“Support for abortion rights is still the majority,” Clegg said. “It’s just that people don’t feel safe being open about their views.”
Indeed, there were also some strongly pro-abortion rights voices in the area.
“I think it should be a woman’s choice, especially when it’s a really bad situation,” said Sue Pelletier of St. John Plantation, a Catholic who said she supported former President Donald Trump but sets her religious faith apart from her beliefs on the issue.
Several others are in a difficult middle ground in a debate that is as moral as it is political. Brian Hafford, a non-Catholic retired carpenter from Allagash, said he opposed people using abortion as birth control. But his stance on abortion rights is more nuanced.
“It could save a mother’s life. It could be rape. It could be incest,” Hafford said. “I don’t want to make it illegal.”