Maine Gov. Janet Mills addresses a large crowd on the steps of Portland City Hall on Friday, June 24, 2022, after the U.S. Supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The 2022 campaign between Gov. Janet Mills and her longtime rival was marked by tension between the dueling issues of abortion rights and a roiled economy.

Both the Democratic governor and former Gov. Paul LePage were quizzed often on the first subject after the U.S. Supreme Court’s summer decision to overturn federal abortion rights. But it was LePage, an anti-abortion Republican, who created the most memorable exchanges, including when he vowed to veto a 15-week ban if his party brought one to him.

As he backed away from the issue, Mills leaned into it by attending rallies and vowing to protect access in Maine. But she only went so far, making clear statements that she would not seek to alter the 1993 law preserving access while banning most abortions after fetal viability.

“Our statute codifies Roe v. Wade, and I don’t intend to offer any changes to it,” she said after a late-September event in Lewiston.

Mills did just that last week, proposing changes led by one that would allow doctors to perform abortions after viability. The move angered Maine’s anti-abortion right and added the culturally fraught topic to the many issues that will be the subject of major legislative fights this year.

In a Friday interview, the governor said she was not considering such a measure during the campaign and the change came about after she heard from abortion-rights supporters.

At her news conference last week, she noted the story of veterinarian Dana Peirce of Yarmouth, who has said she discovered at 32 weeks that her fetus had an anomaly that would kill it shortly after birth. She went to Colorado for an abortion since Maine’s law only allows exceptions to the viability standard if the mother’s life or health is in danger.

“This is not proposing to make an extreme or radical change in the law,” Mills said. “It is proposing to accommodate those rare and heartbreaking circumstances such as Dana’s, and I think it’s appropriate.”

The anti-abortion right is teasing a large mobilization against a bill that Maine’s Catholic bishop notably condemned last week by calling it “radical and extreme.” Democrats can pass it without a single Republican vote, but opponents say they will be loud and are mulling a people’s veto effort if it clears the State House.

“We’re definitely going to seek to put pressure on people and let people know that we don’t agree with what they’re planning,” Mike McClellan, the policy director for the anti-abortion and evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, said.

Participants in an annual anti-abortion rally surround the Maine State House on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 in Augusta. Credit: Joel Page / AP

The viability standard is a common one in abortion-rights states, with Maine and 13 other states cutting off most abortions at that point, according to the abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute. Seven states allow post-viability abortions. Maine would be joining Colorado in that group, even though the viability cutoff would remain if a doctor did not recommend an abortion.

These kinds of abortions are rare. Under the current standard, Maine saw no abortions in 2021 at or beyond 20 weeks, according to state data. Only 1.5 percent of Colorado’s abortions that year came in week 21 or later. About one-third of those — 60 in total — came after 24 weeks.

Some states have addressed cases like Peirce’s with more-targeted exceptions for likely fatal fetal anomalies. That group includes New Hampshire, where Republican Gov. Chris Sununu successfully pushed for such a carveout to the state’s new abortion ban at 24 weeks.

Mills took a dim view of that language on Friday, saying she wanted women and doctors empowered to make these decisions and not force lawyers into the mix.

“I don’t want them to have to get a legal opinion about whether there’s an anomaly here,” she said.

Nicole Clegg, the spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, an abortion provider and advocacy group, said she was once touting the strength of Maine’s abortion-rights laws at an event when Peirce spoke up to say they did not work in her case.

Peirce has been active in Maine’s abortion-rights grassroots since Mills took office, advocating in 2019 for a Mills-backed measure covering abortions under the Medicaid program. Clegg said her advocacy has helped push along the changes that Mills is proposing.

“We can’t advocate just for some people and their rights,” Clegg said. “We really have to think about this in its totality.”

Maine state representatives listen as Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, speaks in opposition to a heating assistance package, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The measure lands in a State House more divided than ever on abortion rights. The 1993 law was signed by a Republican governor. There were several abortion-rights Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats when LePage took office 12 years ago. Despite slim Republican majorities at that time, a broad coalition of lawmakers blocked proposed restrictions.

Only a few lawmakers now stand at odds with their parties. Newly elected Rep. Joseph Galletta, R-Durham, called himself a “pro-life person” but a “pro-choice politician.” He agrees with Mills that abortion is between a woman and her doctor, but he thinks the governor was “classless” to stoke division with this new legislative effort.

“They’re going to create pushback so that they can show the difference in the divide between the parties,” he said of the Democrats. “It’s a complete fabrication on their part.”

Abortion is “my least favorite subject to vote on or talk about,” said Rep. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, who opposed the Medicaid funding bill because he thought his party was prioritizing abortions over other health conditions that could be funded. While he has not made up his mind on this measure, he saw some value in addressing situations like that of Peirce.

“I don’t want to force a mother to deliver a dead baby,” Perry 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...