A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Gov. Janet Mills faced fallout on Wednesday for her support earlier this week for a series of bills that would further expand abortion access in Maine, led by a change that would allow abortions after fetal viability if a doctor deems them medically necessary.
Maine’s Catholic bishop assailed the governor and legislative Democrats for that proposed change, calling it “radical and extreme” in a rare condemnation of a type the state has not seen since the battle over same-sex marriage more than a decade ago. Like the rest of Americans, Catholics have long been divided on abortion despite the church’s strident opposition to it.
It underscores a complex public opinion landscape on the emotional topic. Maine has always polled as an abortion-rights state, with an often-cited 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center finding 64 percent support here for abortion rights in all or most circumstances. Only five states measured higher, putting Maine in the top-tier of those most supportive of abortion rights.
The later in a pregnancy you go, the more popular support erodes for abortion. While a national Associated Press poll in 2021 found 61 percent support for abortion rights in the first trimester, 65 percent thought they should be banned or limited in the second and 80 percent thought they should be in the third.
But it is worth noting the vast majority of abortions — 93 percent — came in the first trimester nationally in 2018. Despite abortion being legal in Maine now up until roughly 24 weeks into a pregnancy, there were no abortions here in week 20 or later in 2021, according to state data.
So this makes it likely that we are discussing outlying situations in which fetal abnormalities are discovered late in pregnancies. Mills cited the story of a Maine woman who went to Colorado for an abortion after finding her fetus had a condition that would lead it to die shortly after being born. For now, Maine only allows post-viability abortions if the life or health of the mother is in danger.
Post-viability abortions are deeply unpopular, generally speaking. Only 17 percent of Americans and 20 percent of Mainers back them, according to a 2022 survey from the COVID States Project. But support jumps back up when Americans are asked about abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities or birth defects, with 47 percent of those nationally and 56 percent of Mainers backing it at that point.
The counterargument from the Catholic bishop and legislative Republicans has focused on the broad idea of changing Maine’s viability standard, which was cemented in a 1993 law preserving abortion access. But loosening abortion restrictions to account for abnormalities has won over Republicans in other states, including in New Hampshire, where a fatal anomaly exception was added last year to the state’s ban on abortions after 24 weeks.
Mills and Maine Democrats are using a different standard. They have the power in Augusta to pass the changes without a single Republican vote, but the public debate around them will be framed by the dueling focuses of the parties. We have seen a strong preview of it this week.
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