Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, prays at the altar during a Mass in Presque Isle in 2019. Credit: Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Maine

Maine’s Catholic bishop denounced Gov. Janet Mills’ new proposals to expand abortion access Wednesday, calling the policies “radical and extreme.”

The Democratic governor backed a raft of bills on the subject at a Tuesday news conference, headlined by one that would allow abortions after fetal viability if doctors find them medically necessary, a practice currently prohibited under Maine law. 

Bishop Robert Deeley of the Diocese of Portland, which covers all of Maine, castigated Mills and legislative Democrats in a statement, using some of the strongest words the church has aimed at Maine policymakers in a decade or more on a social issue.

“It is beyond troubling to see how denying the existence of a human life has become so casual for this governor and members of the Legislature,” he said.

Abortion is a “deeply personal issue” involving a decision made by a woman and her doctor, Mills spokesperson Ben Goodman responded. He noted the case of Dana Peirce of Yarmouth, who had to travel to Colorado for an abortion after she found out 32 weeks into her pregnancy that the fetus she was carrying had a fatal genetic mutation. 

“She believes that no other person in Maine should have to endure the same physical, emotional, psychological, and financial burden that Dana and her husband did to get medical care,” Goodman said of the governor, who cited Peirce’s story on Tuesday.

Maine had some of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights last summer. Mills, a vocal proponent of abortion rights, took office in 2018 and quickly expanded access by covering the procedure under Medicaid and increasing the number of medical professionals allowed to perform abortions.

The church is a dominant institution in Maine, where roughly one-fifth of people identify as Catholic. It views abortion as murder, something Pope Francis repeated in 2021, although he also said bishops should deal with it in a pastoral and non-political way. While the church’s teachings are clear, the majority of U.S. Catholics supported abortion in at least some circumstances in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Deeley last publicly criticized Mills for an early version of gathering restrictions on churches during the COVID-19 pandemic. His Wednesday words were reminiscent of the stance the church took on efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine. 

In 2009, then-Bishop Richard Malone called a state law signed by Gov. John Baldacci, a “dangerous sociological experiment.” The church played a major role in the successful people’s veto effort to overturn the 2009 law, although Mainers legalized same-sex marriage by referendum three years later. 

Baldacci, who is Catholic, remembered that period as difficult in a Wednesday interview, noting frequent protests outside his home and the church he attended. There has always been a complex relationship between church and politics for Catholics, he said, including when President John F. Kennedy had to make clear as a candidate the pope would not give him orders.

Maine’s first Catholic governor, Edmund S. Muskie, struggled with abortion, saying as a senator in 1975 that he opposed it but did “not find it an easy proposition to impose my personal moral views.” He ran as an anti-abortion presidential candidate in 1972. 

“You have a responsibility as elected officials, as governor, congressman or state legislator, to uphold the Constitution,” Baldacci said. “Separation of church and state matters.” 

Many of the Democrats supporting abortion rights in the Legislature come from Catholic backgrounds. They see the issue as one of personal freedom and say it would be unjust to impose Catholic dogma on a religiously-varied population.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, said the governor’s bill would avoid tragic situations like Peirce’s from occurring again. The abortion rights issue is personal for her, she said: her late sister had a rare birth defect that made it so she would have needed an abortion to save her life had she gotten pregnant.

“I don’t think the government, me, any politician, the church, makes those heartbreaking decisions any better by getting involved,” Madigan said.