Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, observes business in the House chamber at the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives abruptly stopped debate on Gov. Janet Mills’ signature abortion rights bill on Thursday with questions swirling around whether they have the votes to pass it over Republican opposition.

At the center of it was Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, an ardent progressive who put forward a late-breaking amendment to the bill. Under an original version, doctors could perform abortions they deem necessary after Maine’s current viability cutoff around 24 weeks. His version would limit post-viability abortions to lethal fetal anomalies and to protect the mother’s health.

It was a stunning turn for a measure that seemed to be sailing toward passage ever since the Democratic governor and leading lawmakers in her party unveiled the idea alongside a list of other abortion-rights bills in January, prompting a fight with Maine’s religious right.

Collings is an ally of House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who is sponsoring the abortion bill. House Democrats gathered in a large committee room two floors below their chamber to discuss the proposed amendment and next steps on the bill and eat dinner around 6 p.m. Thursday evening, following the start of an emotional floor debate.

“Doctors should not be forced to try to prescribe prenatal care on a time clock,” Rep. Tiffany Roberts, D-South Berwick, said after describing her struggles giving birth to twins at age 19. “We trust them with so many other life decisions. This should not be an exception.”

Maine’s Catholic bishop called the governor’s bill “radical and extreme” in a rare rebuke of a politician in January. In early May, hundreds of opponents of the bill, along with a smaller number of abortion-rights advocates, filled the State House for a hearing that ran 19 hours.

“This is not a compassionate bill,” Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, said. “If it were, I would vote for it.”

Mills has 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. The woman had to travel to Colorado, where the abortion was legal at that stage. She has said the proposal is tailored to those situations, while Republicans argue it is not.

Collings’ approach mirrors one used by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who recently approved a carve-out to abortion restrictions for likely fatal fetal anomalies. Mills rejected such an idea in January, saying she did not want doctors to “have to get a legal opinion” on whether a fetus was viable or not.

The tension reflects new political polarization, old alliances and cultural anxieties in a state where the Catholic church is a major institution. Roughly a decade ago, many anti-abortion Democrats and abortion-rights Republicans sat in the Legislature. Now there are few who cross party lines on the issue. Only seven Democrats refused to sponsor this year’s measure.

Collings was among the sponsors, but he is also a native of Fort Kent at the center of perhaps the most anti-abortion region in Maine. He is term-limited from running for his seat in 2024, and he has always been someone that the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine has reached out to on the abortion issue, said Carroll Conley, the group’s executive director.

“Ben is a Fort Kent Roman Catholic,” he said.

One was Rep. Bruce White, a Catholic from Waterville who used a floor speech to reflect on the “poverty and hardship” faced by his mother, who raised seven children largely as a single parent and said “science and reason” led him to oppose the measure.

“I thank God she had the fortitude to give birth to each one of us,” he said of his mother.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated a word in a quote from Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...

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...