AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite hours of testimony last week from Mainers opposed to a package of bills to expand abortion access, the Democratic-led Legislature is all but certain to pass measures that include a key proposal from Gov. Janet Mills.
But seven House Democrats are the lone members of their party to not sign on as co-sponsors to the signature bill from Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, that would allow doctors to perform abortions they deem necessary after fetal viability around 24 weeks.
The small group’s members told the Bangor Daily News they aren’t signing because they are staunchly anti-abortion, but rather are weighing constituent concerns or waiting to see the final version of the plan.
Those seven Democrats — Reps. Mana Abdi and Michael Lajoie of Lewiston, Bill Bridgeo of Augusta, Anne Perry of Calais, Joe Perry of Bangor, Ronald Russell of Verona Island and Bruce White of Waterville — mostly represent a mix of historic Franco-American strongholds and rural communities with close political divides.
White, who did not respond to a request for comment, was the only Democrat to vote with Republicans when they forced a rare procedural vote on sending the Talbot Ross bill to the Judiciary Committee last month. Joe Perry and White are the only returning House Democrats who voted in 2021 for another bill that would have repealed MaineCare abortion funding.
In an interview, Perry said he understood the governor’s stated focus on allowing mothers who discover fatal fetal anomalies late in pregnancies to get abortions in Maine. Under current law, the only exception to the viability standard is for the life and health of the mother.
“I want to gather my information from my medical professionals, and that’s who I’ve seeked out,” he said.
He, Bridgeo and Anne Perry, a retired nurse practitioner, are each waiting for the measure to come out of the committee to make a final decision. The Calais lawmaker said the measure “isn’t quite as much of a policy shift as I thought it was” at first. Bridgeo said he was withholding comment until the committee deals with the bill.
Russell, a first-term lawmaker who narrowly flipped a Republican-held seat in the 2022 election, said he takes “the word ‘representative’ seriously.” During the campaign, he answered a BDN questionnaire alongside many other candidates in both parties to say there should be no changes to abortion law, an idea that Mills put forward as well during her concurrent run.
The decision would be easier if it were simply personal, Russell said. But he is trying to weigh feedback that he has gotten since the campaign, saying the issue came up at a recent chat over coffee with constituents.
“I don’t want it to come across that I’m a fervent anti-abortionist,” he said. “I definitely feel the woman has the right to choose.”
Russell also questioned what would happen if a doctor disagrees with the viability cutoff, which has its roots in a landmark 1993 law that codified Roe v. Wade protections in Maine. Numerous states have either restricted or expanded abortion access since the Supreme Court overturned those abortion protections last summer.
This session’s signature bill championed by Mills would additionally repeal two sets of criminal penalties, including those aimed at those performing post-viability abortions without proper medical licensure, although Maine has other punishments for unlicensed medical practice. It would also amend an abortion reporting law to shield personally identifiable information.
Asked why he did not cosponsor the measure, Lajoie said he preferred “to keep that to myself.” He voted against a Republican attempt in 2013 to expand on Maine’s law that requires a doctor to obtain “informed consent” from a woman seeking an abortion.
Abdi, a first-term lawmaker who joined Rep. Deqa Dhalac, D-South Portland, last year in becoming the first Somali Americans elected to the Legislature, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.
When unveiling the plan in January, Mills cited the story of a Maine woman who discovered 32 weeks into her pregnancy that her fetus had a rare, likely fatal condition and then went to Colorado for an abortion because Maine’s law would not let her get one at that stage.
Maine had no abortions after 20 weeks in 2021, according to state data. The vast majority of abortions nationally come in the first trimester. Democrats have pointed to their election victories and a recent University of New Hampshire poll finding a majority of Mainers back the Mills bill.
But Republicans and social conservative allies, who flooded the State House from Monday into Tuesday for marathon testimony against several abortion access bills, call them “extreme.” A competing package of their bills to limit abortion access received a hearing Friday.
Other bills from Democrats would bar Maine cities and towns from restricting abortion, require private insurers to cover abortion services and prevent malpractice insurers from taking action against abortion providers based on anti-abortion laws in other states.