Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she and other State House leaders outlined how they will continue to protect access to abortion care, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Leading Democrats including Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday unveiled several measures aimed at expanding abortion access in Maine, including one allowing abortions late in pregnancies if doctors deem them medically necessary.

That change would further loosen Maine’s already liberal set of abortion laws, which are governed by a 1993 law that codified abortion rights. The procedure is legal in Maine until fetal viability — generally considered to be 24 weeks or so into a pregnancy — and afterward when it is necessary to protect the life or the health of the mother.

The Maine law took on more importance last year after the conservative high court overturned federal abortion rights and allowed states to ban them. Abortion was one of the dominant issues of the 2022 campaigns here and across the country, with Mills and other Democrats raising the specter of restrictions if former Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans gained power.

But Mills won and Democrats held the Legislature and are proposing  bills that would set aside the viability standard for abortions deemed medically necessary, make it easier for Maine medical professionals to perform abortions for women who live in more restrictive states, bar cities and towns from restricting access and eliminate insurance cost-sharing for abortions.

At a Tuesday news conference, Mills relayed the story of a Maine woman who discovered 32 weeks into her pregnancy that her fetus had a rare condition that led to broken bones in the womb and would not allow him to breathe if he was born. She went to Colorado for an abortion because Maine’s law would not allow her to get one.

“Fundamentally, these decisions are decisions that should be made by a woman and her medical provider,” Mills said.

Democrats have the votes to push through smaller changes to abortion law changes, although Republicans hold enough votes to block the two-thirds majorities needed to pass a more sweeping state constitutional amendment to guarantee abortion access.

The biggest change suggested by Mills would apply to only a scant share of abortions in Maine. Just over 97 percent of abortions here in 2021 came by the 15th week of gestation and none at all came during or after week 20, according to state health data.

These Democratic proposals come on the heels of changes early in Mills’ first term to increase abortion access, including those that covered the procedure under Medicaid and increased the number of medical professionals allowed to perform them. Last year, she issued an executive order barring state agencies from participating in other states’ investigations of abortions.

Tuesday’s move was somewhat of a reversal from Mills’ stance on the campaign trail, where she said Maine’s viability standard was sufficient. When asked at an October gubernatorial debate whether she would seek to remove it, the governor said she would not.

LePage and Republicans took a softer tone on abortion after the high court’s decision last year, but the new crop of party lawmakers is solidly anti-abortion. While they can do little to stop the measures rolled out by the governor and Democrats on Tuesday, they will resist them.

Maine House Republicans called the proposed changes “extreme” in a statement. The evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, would “err on the side of prayer and hope” in rare cases of abnormalities later in pregnancies and said the changes outlined may erode existing limits, said Michael McClellan, the group’s policy director.

He said Democrats and abortion-rights groups were portraying a situation in which the lives of Maine women were at stake, something he argued was not true under current law.

“They really have nailed that message and we just have to combat it and tell people the truth,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...