Gov. Janet Mills speaks to a crowd at an abortion-rights rally in Portland's Monument Square on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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A signature abortion-rights bill laid out by Gov. Janet Mills in January to criticism from Maine’s anti-abortion right was printed on Tuesday, kicking off weeks of heated debate in the Legislature on an emotional topic that has taken more weight in the last year.

Mills, a Democrat, spent her 2022 reelection campaign burnishing her pro-abortion rights credentials after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights. But she also was selling some restraint on the issue, saying at that time that she wanted no changes to Maine’s liberal abortion access laws. That made her January move a stark reversal.

What it does: Her main bill would allow doctors to perform abortions that they deem medically necessary after fetal viability, the current cutoff for legal abortions in most cases in Maine now that generally sits at around 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

Mills defended her move by saying the bill was intended to apply to rare cases in which fetal anomalies are discovered late in pregnancies. There were no Maine abortions after 20 weeks in 2021, according to state data. The vast majority of abortions nationally come in the first trimester.

Counterpoints: That has not assuaged Republicans and their socially conservative allies who are organizing against the measures. Maine’s Catholic bishop issued a rare rebuke to the governor, saying the proposal was “radical and extreme.”

Legislative Republicans have used language saying Mills would “expand abortion to nine months.” They are holding a Wednesday news conference on the bill, and evangelical groups including the Christian Civic League of Maine have been mobilizing against it for weeks.

State of play: Democrats can pass the bill without any Republican votes in a State House that is deeply polarized on abortion. A decade ago, there were blocs of pro-abortion rights Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats. There are almost none straddling those lines now, although some may be facing hard votes.

The Portland Press Herald noted the seven legislative Democrats who did not sponsor the measure, including those from the historic Franco-American strongholds of Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville, Rep. Joe Perry of Bangor and rural members including Reps. Ronald Russell of Verona Island and Anne Perry of Calais.

Democrats will point to their election victories and a recent University of New Hampshire poll saying a majority of Mainers support the bill in a state that has long polled in favor of abortion rights. But Republicans are still going to make this a long and arduous debate in the Legislature, as abortion has been for a while there.

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...