Maine doctors said they see few problems with a proposal from Gov. Janet Mills that would allow them to perform abortions later in pregnancies, saying the change would alleviate rare and tragic circumstances.

The proposal rolled out by the Democratic governor would allow abortions after fetal viability — generally considered to be around 24 weeks — if it is deemed medically necessary. That is currently only allowed in Maine after viability to preserve the life or health of the mother.

While abortions rarely happen past the 20-week mark under current law, the proposal has proven deeply controversial. The state’s Catholic bishop condemned Mills by saying the idea was “radical and extreme,” but early reactions from prominent doctors were positive.

The Maine Medical Association wants to see the new bill’s language before taking an official stand, but Dr. Erik Steele, its president, said the group has consistently taken the position that abortion is a decision between a woman and a doctor.

“If you have 100 physicians, you generally have 100 opinions,” he said. “That said, I think a substantial majority of physicians support this as a woman’s decision to make.”

Mills and other advocates of the bill have pointed to the case of a Yarmouth woman, Dana Peirce, who learned 32 weeks into her pregnancy that the fetus had no chance of survival.

Such an abortion is illegal in Maine, forcing her to travel thousands of miles to Colorado for one. Colorado is one of seven states that do not ban post-viability abortions, according to the abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute.

Viability standard is a common standard in abortion-rights states, with 13 states including Maine generally prohibiting abortions after that point. The changes from Mills and Democrats came after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights last year, upending national politics and putting the onus on states to ban, limit or permit abortions.

Abortions late in pregnancies are relatively rare. In 2020, 93 percent of U.S. abortions came at or before week 13, according to federal data. Less than 1 percent came at 21 weeks or later. Maine saw no abortions in the 20th week or later in 2021.

Steele said he has been present when a baby died almost immediately after the mother gave birth due to a previously detected genetic problem, something he called “a terrible experience for everyone, especially the mom and the rest of the family.”

Some of these fatal anomalies are not discovered until after 24 weeks, said Dr. Brendan Prast, a family physician in Portland, who formerly treated women with low-and-medium risk pregnancies. 

Prast said that prohibition on such practices showed that Maine law is more restrictive on abortion than it may look. There is precedent in other states that have legislated this matter such as Colorado, and this proposal would give doctors more leeway to help patients, he said.

“It’s really important to be able to have more freedom to pick what’s healthiest for the patient,” Prast said.

This proposed change would not put Maine exactly in line with Colorado in having no viability standard. But it also takes a different path than neighboring states including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which have exceptions to post-viability abortion bans for fetal anomalies.

The Catholic bishop said the proposal shows a disregard for human life. The conservative reaction would be different if it permitted abortion after viability to save the life of a mother, something currently legal under Maine law, said Maine Right to Life Director Karen Vachon.

She was “horrified” by the law and surprised that some doctors were in support, saying that she feels there would be those who would refuse to permit abortions under such circumstances if it passed.

“We have to look at this for what it is: This is murder of human beings,” Vachon said. “This is not reproductive health care.”

Prast said the need for change to Maine law may be clear medically. Outside that realm, he recognized that it is still a difficult subject.

“From a legal perspective, it’s not as cut and dry because of how politically divisive this is,” he said.