Followers of a committee hearing on several bills to expand abortion access in Maine watch it on a TV set up to accommodate overflowing crowds in the State House on May 1. Credit: Billy Kobin / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Anti-abortion activists flooded the State House on Monday, with scores giving emotional testimony into Tuesday morning on a package of bills led by Gov. Janet Mills that would further loosen Maine’s abortion access laws.

The package of laws is headlined by one that would allow doctors to perform abortions they deem necessary after fetal viability, roughly 24 weeks into a pregnancy. That is the current threshold for abortion in Maine, except when the life or health of a mother is in danger.

States are acting on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer overturned federal abortion rights. Roughly half of states have enacted bans or restrictions on abortion or are likely to, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute. The changes would put Maine among a small group of states with the most permissive laws on the subject.

A long line of people waiting to enter the State House remained outside as the hearing began around noon. About 65 proponents spoke for more than three hours, and the opposing side went until around 7 a.m. Tuesday after a staggering 650 people signed up to testify against the bills, a clerk said. Five overflow rooms with TVs were set up throughout the State House for those unable to fit inside the fourth-floor Judiciary Committee room.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference, Jan. 17 in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty, File

Bethany Graves, a 51-year-old school bus driver from Etna, was outside the State House in the morning holding a sign reading, “Abortion is a violent act against one too weak to defend himself.” She recounted difficult pregnancies before she had all of her four children.

“It’s not the baby’s fault that there are issues, and I think that some of these things can be worked through person by person,” she said. “But I think we need to be very careful that we don’t justify the hurting of another person.”

The governor and her pro-abortion rights allies have said the bill is tailored to help families in cases in which likely fatal fetal anomalies are discovered late in pregnancies. She has highlighted a Maine woman who discovered her fetus had a condition at 32 weeks that would lead it to die shortly after being born and had to travel to Colorado for a legal abortion.

In Maine and nationally, the vast majority of abortions are in the first trimester, and no abortions occurred in Maine after 20 weeks in 2021, according to state data.

Mills said during a Monday news conference with abortion-rights advocates and other Democratic lawmakers the bill’s opponents, including Republican legislators, who claim it would allow abortion “on demand” or “up until birth” are wrong.

“It is a reasonable, limited and compassionate response to address the rare and heartbreaking situations of women who have been failed by our current law,” Mills said.

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

The bill came after Mills in her 2022 reelection campaign said she was not seeking any changes to abortion access laws. Several Republican lawmakers asked an adviser to the governor about that during Monday testimony. They were ruled out of order by a Democratic committee chair.

The viability cutoff has not been changed since a landmark 1993 law codified federal, Roe v. Wade-era protections in Maine. Mills’ signature bill also would repeal two sets of criminal penalties, including those specifically aimed at performing abortions without being licensed as a health professional, although Maine has other punishments for unlicensed medical practice.

Other abortion-rights bills would bar Maine cities and towns from restricting abortion in their jurisdictions, require private insurers to cover abortion services and prevent medical malpractice insurers from taking action against abortion providers based on anti-abortion laws in other states. All are likely to pass the Democratic-led Legislature.

But they have prompted a firestorm from the anti-abortion right. In January, Maine’s Catholic bishop issued a rare rebuke of the governor by calling her main viability-related bill “radical and extreme.” Faith-based arguments dominated that side’s testimony on Monday. Diana Froisland of Raymond told lawmakers allowing abortion “at any time for any reason” is immoral.

“Life is a gift and should be treated in a respectful manner,” Froisland said.

Maine has routinely polled as an abortion-rights state, however. 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, have shown opposition for abortions late in pregnancy but also support for them in the case of serious fetal abnormalities.

A people’s veto effort is one option for opponents if the abortion bills pass this year, but history shows the odds of getting a veto question on the ballot is not a given in Maine.

Rep. Laura Supica, D-Bangor, sits at her desk at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 2, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Anti-abortion advocates tried to overturn Mills-backed laws in 2019 that allowed Medicaid funding for abortions and expanded the list of medical professionals allowed to perform them, but it failed to get on the ballot behind low signature totals in southern Maine.

Rep. Laura Supica, D-Bangor, the sponsor of the bill preempting restrictions in cities and towns, testified that she had an abortion when she was 18.

“They’re your teachers. They’re your nurses. They’re the people that work at the gas station,” Supica said of those who have had abortions. “They’re your neighbors. They’re your friends.”

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...