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

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats pushed a priority abortion-rights bill from Gov. Janet Mills through a legislative committee on Friday over opposition from Republicans who left the hearing room at one point in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the measure.

The drama-filled process sent a bill that would allow doctors to perform abortions they deem necessary after Maine’s current viability cutoff around 24 weeks. It would put the state among seven others that allow abortions after viability, which is the current threshold here except when the life or health of a mother is in danger.

Mills, a Democrat, announced her support for the measure and others on the same topic in January after she said during her 2022 campaign that she wanted no changes to abortion laws. Anti-abortion Republicans mobilized against it, leading to a May public hearing that ran over 19 hours and featured testimony from hundreds of opponents.

The atmosphere was also hot in the Judiciary Committee, which tabled the bill Thursday following frequent delays to some members needing to go to the House of Representatives for floor votes. The panel called another session on the bill on Friday morning.

Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she and her committee co-chair, Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, decided to call a vote Friday because it was the last day the committee was authorized by leaders to act on the measure before the session ends. 

But Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said Democrats made a “deliberate decision” not to communicate with Republicans on the plan to vote Friday. After airing concerns, he and Rep. Rachel Henderson, R-Rumford, left the committee room trying to block a quorum on the committee controlled by Democrats.

About five minutes later, committee co-chair Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, said Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, had appointed Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, to fill a spot held by a Democratic senator who was absent. Brakey and Henderson returned, and Democrats sent the bill to the chamber floors in a party-line 7-3 vote.

Democrats made only slight tweaks to the bill that looked to be aimed at rhetorically answering some Republican criticism. Opponents have hit the law in part for repealing a specific law barring those without medical licenses from performing abortions, although there are general laws against unlicensed practice that still would apply to abortion.

The changes reference those laws and clarify that doctors performing abortions must operate under the “standard of care” in making a professional judgment. The amended bill clarifies performing an abortion without proper licensure is a Class E misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, with additional penalties possible under existing laws.

“I think having a standard of care worked into this law is essential and ensures the concerns that many of the public have are not ones that are going to occur again,” Rep. Adam Lee, D-Auburn, said Friday.

When Mills proposed the bill, she highlighted the story of a Maine woman who discovered at 32 weeks her fetus had a condition that would cause it to die shortly after birth and then traveled to Colorado, where the abortion was legal at that stage. The governor has said the measure is targeted at rare cases in which fetal anomalies are discovered late in pregnancies.

But Republicans and their anti-abortion allies have argued the language goes too far by allowing doctors to perform abortions for any reason. Maine’s Catholic bishop spoke against the governor’s bill earlier in the year in a rare rebuke of a politician, calling it “radical and extreme.” Republicans on the committee repeatedly asked if guidelines exist for determining when it is “necessary” for abortions to happen and argued it is a vague term.

“This fiction that we’re not dealing with a person with human rights and therefore we can just throw them away … there’s no version of this legislation I can support at this time,” Brakey said.

Democrats have long seemingly had the votes to pass the measure, with all but seven of their legislators sponsoring the measure. Maine has routinely polled as an abortion-rights state, but polling on the subject of abortions late in pregnancy is notoriously fickle.

A February poll of Mainers by the University of New Hampshire found 52 percent support for the governor’s bill. Post-viability abortions are unpopular here and nationally. Only 20 percent of Mainers supported them in a 2022 survey by the COVID States Project, although a majority here supported allowing abortions in the case of fetal abnormalities or birth defects.

Post-viability abortions are relatively rare. In Maine and nationally, the vast majority of abortions are in the first trimester. No abortions occurred in Maine after 20 weeks in 2021, according to state data. In Colorado, one of the states that allows post-viability abortions, roughly 1.5 percent of 2021 abortions came at 21 weeks or later.

Other Democrat-backed bills would bar Maine cities and towns from restricting abortion, 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. Various Republican-sponsored bills to curtail or discourage abortion have not succeeded.

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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...