Efforts to limit abortions draw big crowds to hearing

Posted May 03, 2011, at 12:34 p.m.
Last modified May 10, 2011, at 8:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican-led efforts to limit abortions in Maine brought an overflow crowd to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday with abortion rights activists warning that the new restrictions would turn back the clock on a woman’s right to choose.

Supporters of the bills say they will strengthen Maine’s abortion laws by ensuring women have enough time to make an informed decision; enhancing their knowledge of the medical and psychological risks of abortion, the procedure itself, and the life it will end; and upholding parents’ rights to be involved in the lives of their children.

One measure, LD 116, would require women to wait at least 24 hours from their initial consultation before having an abortion except in emergency situations.

LD 924, meanwhile, would require a woman seeking an abortion be given state-written materials describing the risks of the procedure, “scientifically accurate information” about the development stage of the fetus, and information on adoption and other alternatives to terminating her pregnancy.

The third bill, LD 1457, would require minors to obtain parental or guardian consent, written and notarized, before having an abortion. Minors could circumvent this requirement by obtaining a court order after signing a statement that there is “a pattern of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect” in her relationship with her parents or guardians.

In addition to the bills’ sponsors and cosponsors — all of whom are Republicans — the three measures were supported by the Catholic Diocese of Maine, Americans United for Life, the Maine Right to Life Committee, conservative clergy members,  women with personal experience with abortion and others.

Opponents at Tuesday’s hearing included the Maine Medical Association, medical providers from clinics that provide abortions and other women’s health services,  social workers, nurses, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and women’s rights organizations.  Opponents said Maine’s abortion laws are working and that restricting them will turn back the clock, resulting in more unwanted children, more mid- and late-term abortions, and erosion of the private relationship between a woman and her physician.

Under the guidance of Senate committee chair David Hastings, R-Oxford, testimony was strong but respectful on both sides of the issues.

“It seems to me that women have not come as far as the feminist movement promised us,” testified Teresa McCann-Tumidajski, executive director of the Maine Right to Life Committee, speaking in support of LD 924. “Here we are in 2011, petitioning for a woman’s ‘Right To Know’ legislation concerning their own pregnancies.”

Like many in support of the bills, McCann-Tumidajski referred to studies showing that women who undergo abortion are at increased risk for developing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other psychological disorders. Other studies, she said, have linked abortion to breast cancer and a number of reproductive problems later in life, including sterility, miscarriage and preterm deliveries.

“Today you will hear powerful firsthand testimony from courageous post-abortive women who have been on the front lines of the reproductive rights movement,” she said. “Each valiant women’s painful journey has a recurring theme: ‘If only I had known.’  Unfortunately, there is no reset button with abortion.”

But internist Besty Weiss, who serves now as the medical director of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor, said there are no valid studies that show any significant relationship between abortion and the long-term complications cited by anti-abortion groups.

Weiss said it is essential to protect women’s access to safe and legal abortion. All doctors are required by law to obtain informed consent for any medical procedure, she said, and women who seek an abortion are provided with all medically appropriate information, both verbally and in writing.

Women trust their doctors to tell them the risks and benefits of any procedure , she said.

“One of the wonderful things about being a doctor is being allowed into people’s lives at times that are intensely personal and intimate,” Weiss said. “The government has no place in that room.”

Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, told the committee he submitted his bill to require a 24-hour waiting period after a young female friend told him she had been pressured to have an abortion the same day her unexpected pregnancy was confirmed.

Few elective surgical procedures are performed without allowing the patient a period of reflection, Clark said, and terminating a pregnancy should be no exception, especially given the emotional vulnerability of a woman who finds herself unintentionally pregnant and the high stakes of the decision to keep or terminate the pregnancy.

“I don’t think a night’s sleep on a life-altering decision is too much to ask,” he said.

Clark’s friend, 20-year-old Cyndi Baucher of Ellsworth, attended the hearing with her 5-month-old daughter, Madeline, and Madeline’s father, who is now Baucher’s husband.

Kate Brogan of the Family Planning Association of Maine said Baucher’s experience of being pressured to terminate her pregnancy is far from the norm. The great majority of women seeking an abortion have already discussed their options with another health care provider before coming to one of Maine’s three public abortion clinics, she said. As part of the informed consent process, they are asked if they are sure of their decision and offered counseling or referral to other resources, Brogan said.

Especially for women who live in rural areas, a 24-hour waiting period would be burdensome, forcing them to take more time off from work, arrange for extra child care and find transportation and  local accommodations, according to Brogan. She and others said that in other states that have adopted a waiting period, the rate of higher-risk mid- and late-term abortions has increased.

The underage consent bill from Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, would help protect minors from abuse, argued Daniel McConchie of Americans United for Life. Maine’s current law allows minors to seek adult support from a distant relative or unrelated counselor, he noted, paving the way for an underage girl to be exploited by the very adult who is abusing her. Parental consent should be the required for any minor seeking an abortion, he said, unless the minor can persuade a court that her home life is abusive or neglectful. Craft’s bill, he said, will ensure parent’s involvement and “protect minors who are making a monumental decision.”

Opponents argued that many youngsters cannot safely tell their parents they are pregnant and are not sophisticated enough to navigate the courts to waive the parental consent requirement.

The back-and-forth continued into the early evening, with many speakers waiting in the committee room all afternoon to present their testimony. Among the last was Andrew MacLean of the Maine Medical Association, which represents Maine physicians.

“The abortion debate in this country is marked by different but important values and the diversity of beliefs should be respected,” MacLean told the committee, speaking in opposition. “The MMA opposes legislation that does not respect this diversity of beliefs. We oppose legislation intended to intimidate physicians and other health care providers and their families, and to obstruct patients’ access to safe abortions. We oppose the harassment of abortion providers and patients as well as legislation that seeks to differentiate them from the medical community as a whole. It is on these principles that we oppose the bills before you today.”

A work session on the bills is scheduled for May 12.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story contained an incorrect byline. The story was written by Meg Haskell of the BDN staff.

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