A woman wears Planned Parenthood and buttons promoting the reelection campaign of Gov. Janet Mills at an abortion-rights rally in Portland's Monument Square on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A roiled national landscape on abortion has led to a package of Democratic bills aimed at further loosening Maine’s laws, prompting backlash from social conservatives here.

Gov. Janet Mills is at the forefront of the effort, championing the most attention-grabbing proposal after saying in her 2022 reelection campaign that she was not seeking any changes to abortion access laws.

Republicans are framing the proposed changes in stark terms but have little power to stop Democrats from passing them.

Here’s what you need to know about the changes.

What would the bills do?

The major bill outlined by Mills, top legislative Democrats and pro-abortion rights groups in January was printed this week. Its major provision would allow doctors to perform abortions they deem medically necessary after fetal viability, roughly 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

That is the current threshold for most abortions, with exceptions if the life or health of a mother is in danger. Mills has said the bill is aimed at rare situations in which a fetal anomaly that is likely to be fatal is discovered late in pregnancies. Nationally and in Maine, the vast majority of abortions are in the first trimester. There were no abortions here after 20 weeks in 2021, according to state data.

proposed abortion law changes

The same measure includes other changes. It would repeal two sets of criminal penalties, including those for performing abortions without being licensed as a health professional, though Maine has other punishments for unlicensed practice of medicine. It would also remove identifying information from reports to the state on abortions performed here.

Two other bills from Democrats are simpler. They would bar cities and towns from restricting abortion in their jurisdictions and keep medical malpractice insurers from taking action against abortion providers here based on anti-abortion laws in other states, something that is aimed at allowing Maine providers to give abortions to people from states with restrictions.

Where would they place Maine on the national landscape?

Maine has long had a permissive set of abortion laws that date back to a landmark 1993 overhaul that codified federal protections. It carries more weight after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn them and return abortion laws to the states. Conservative states have banned or restricted abortion since then.

The pro-abortion rights Center for Reproductive Justice puts Maine in a category of states with “protected” abortion access, short of a group of liberal states like California and New York that have expanded it since the high court’s decision last year.

Anti-abortion activists crowd the hall just outside the Maine House of Representatives chamber at the State House in Augusta before a vote on a bill shielding abortion rights on April 6, 1993. Credit: AP File

These changes would move Maine into that echelon. It is now among 43 states that bar abortion after a certain point in pregnancy, with California and New York having similar viability standards, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute. Colorado is among the seven states that do not.

Last year’s decision forced advocates to review Maine laws for any weak spots, Nicole Clegg, the acting CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, an abortion-rights group and abortion provider, said.

“Given how opponents of abortion are exploiting the courts as they are, we’re going to keep finding places we need to shore up in Maine law,” she said.

What are the conservative counterarguments?

Backlash from Maine Republicans and their allies has been fierce, noting Mills’ campaign stance against new abortion changes. The state’s Catholic bishop issued a rare rebuke of the governor, calling her signature bill “radical and extreme.”

Legislative Republicans have termed it as a proposal to expand abortion to nine months and criticized it for repealing the criminal penalties specific to abortion. So has the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine and other groups, which has also signaled it will fight the other bills, calling them “shocking examples” of abortion expansions in a November newsletter.

“God alone numbers our days, not Janet Mills,” Rep. Reagan Paul, R-Winterport, said at a Wednesday news conference after the release of the governor’s main bill. “To say this bill is evil would be a severe understatement.”

Rep. Reagan Paul, R-Winterport, speaks to a crowded conference room on medication abortions during anti-abortion events on April 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Joe Phelan / The Kennebec Journal via AP

What’s next?

The main bill was released with enough Democratic cosponsors to pass it, assuming they all stand by the measure. Only seven legislators in the majority party did not sign on. But Republicans will fight on this emotional issue, and all of the bills will be subject to long hearings and arduous debates on the chamber floors later this spring.

They will be framed by a tug of war over public opinion. A February poll of Mainers by the University of New Hampshire found 52 percent support for the governor’s bill. National polls including one by The Associated Press in 2021 show high levels of opposition for abortions late in pregnancy but high support for them in the case of serious fetal abnormalities.

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...