Forty years ago Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortions in America.
Today, those in Maine who support that decision say the state is doing well with access, education and, in general, a woman’s right to choose — all while the number of abortions has dropped from about 4,500 a year in the 1980s to about 2,500 a year now.
“Things actually haven’t gotten too bad. It’s not like some of the other states,” said Megan Hannan, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “We have people on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, who believe that the decisions are best left up to the women who are making them.”
But those opposed to Roe v. Wade say they will never stop fighting to end legalized abortions.
“One child dying is too many deaths,” said Donna Hebert, founder of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, which holds weekly protests outside the Portland Planned Parenthood clinic, which provides abortions. “When I stand before the Lord, I can say, ‘Lord, I tried.’”
In Maine, abortions are legal with few restrictions. A minor must have parental consent to get an abortion, or she must receive counseling or be granted a petition by the court. There are no such requirements for adults. Maine law allows abortion until the fetus is viable, unless the health or life of the mother is at risk.
Maine’s abortion numbers were highest in the 1980s, when they hovered around 4,500 a year, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control figures. By the late 1990s, they had dropped to about 2,500.
About 2,300 abortions were performed in 2010, the most recent year data are available from the Office of Data, Research and Vital Statistics in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hannan credits that drop to more and better birth control options, as well as comprehensive sex education in schools.
“I think we can all agree we’d like it to continue going down,” she said. “As long as it means not that there are unnecessary restrictions put on women so that they can’t have an abortion when they need it, but that it means there are fewer unintended pregnancies.”
In 2009, the last year data are available from the federal CDC, Maine’s abortion rate was 9.8 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. The national rate was 15.1.
Three health centers perform abortions in Maine: Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor, Family Planning Association in Augusta and Planned Parenthood in Portland. Some OB/GYNs also perform abortions and some hospitals will as well, Hannan said as long as the patient comes through an affiliated doctor. Maine law allows doctors, hospitals and others to refuse to perform or assist in the procedure.
Although some lawmakers have tried to place restrictions on abortions in Maine — including, last year, proposals to require a 24-hour waiting period and counseling before an abortion — they have failed, even in legislatures controlled by conservatives.
Hannan sees that as a good thing.
But she also sees more protests at her clinic and others. Every Friday for the past several months, members of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine have been stationed outside the Portland Planned Parenthood with anti-abortion signs and pamphlets.
Hannan believes the uptick in protests is due to abortion debates during the most recent election.
“The election was just a hotbed of anti-women, anti-birth control, anti-abortion stuff,” she said. “And I think there was an echo chamber for people who felt that way, anyway, but they were now hearing people running for the Senate, people who are U.S. senators, talking about things like ‘legitimate rape,’ talking about the fact there’s no need for abortion to save the life of the mother, ever.”
Hebert, head of Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, said she started showing up at Planned Parenthood in July after she learned the clinic performs abortions. A born-again Christian, she believes abortion is murder.
“I decided to go one day and see if I could offer the girls other options. They didn’t have to choose death for their child,” Hebert said. “So I started going out there. And eventually, my children asked if they could come with me, so they started coming with me.”
As word spread, other families joined Hebert and her children. About 20 people now regularly show up Friday mornings. She has asked large groups of people to stay away, she said, because she doesn’t want the women to feel intimidated.
“I don’t wish these girls to have to walk through a hundred people holding signs,” she said. “The few of us that are out there are sufficient. That’s all we need.”
Recently, others have started a counter-protest.
Hebert said she used to be pro-choice and had legal abortions herself, including one when she was 15, scared and didn’t know she had any other option. She wants to make sure other women realize they have options.
“No one was there for me and I wish there had been, because I really believe I would have chosen life if somebody had spoken to me and given me the choice,” she said.
To her, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade means “40 years of absolute legal killing in the United States.”
She said, “I keep praying that more Christians would realize this.”
Hannan hopes Roe v. Wade is never overturned. Hebert is sure it will be.
“When Jesus returns, absolutely,” she said. “But I hope it’s before that. I can’t tell. Only God knows.”