Maine House rejects bills to tighten abortion rules, create fetal rights after passionate debates

The State House in Augusta.
The State House in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted June 12, 2013, at 7:53 p.m.
Last modified June 12, 2013, at 9:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — On the same day the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to outlaw nearly all abortions after the 22nd week of pregnancy, Maine lawmakers spent more than two hours sharing personal stories and delivering impassioned speeches about reproductive and fetal rights Wednesday evening in the Maine House.

After Maine’s latest State House abortion debate, a majority of legislators voted against two bills that aimed to change abortion laws and one that would allow wrongful death civil suits for a fetus that had reached 24 weeks gestation. Each bill reprised legislation that failed in previous legislatures. They also drew hours of emotional testimony during public hearings last month before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

One bill, LD 760, sponsored by Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, brought the question of “informed consent” back to the House. The bill would require doctors and health care workers to provide information about alternatives to abortion and remove a requirement in current law that the woman request the information to receive it. LD 760 also would require women to be provided with “scientifically accurate information about the fetus,” information about medical benefits that pregnant women may qualify for, and counseling about the father’s liability for support.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Espling said she was willing to amend the bill to simply allow a woman seeking an abortion to see an ultrasound of her fetus if she asked.

Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, a physician, called upon her own experiences treating pregnant women and delivering babies to argue against the measure. She cited her work with “women who’ve been raped at the age of 12 by relatives,” and in cases where ultrasounds revealed severe developmental problems.

“If they have to see an ultrasound, it would add to the trauma they go through,” Dorney said of women in those circumstances.

Rep. Matthew Moonan, D-Portland, a member of the Judiciary Committee, urged rejection of the bill because it “confuses consent with counseling.”

The House voted 90-53 against LD 760.

A second bill, LD 1339, sponsored by Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, sought to repeal the state’s law concerning consent for a minor’s abortion and require written consent of a parent or legal guardian before a minor or incapacitated person could have an abortion. The bill would give probate or district courts the power to waive that requirement if the woman involved is sufficiently mature and well-informed or if the woman can demonstrate that she is a victim of physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

Supporters, including Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, argued that Maine law requires parental consent for tattoos, field trips and physical exams, so it should apply to abortions.

Opponents, including Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, asserted that Maine’s existing law fairly balances the rights of parents with concerns about the safety of minors who could be endangered by the mandates proposed in Davis’ bill.

“It makes things considerably more difficult for those involved,” said Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, a member of the Judiciary Committee. He said the bill “poses a unique burden of proof” on minors seeking an exemption from the provisions included in Davis’ bill.

But Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said the state should do as much as it can to support parental involvement in a decision with such far-reaching consequences as having an abortion.

The House voted 81-61 against Davis’ bill.

The most contentious debate centered on LD 1193, which would allow parents to file wrongful death actions in civil courts to seek damages from people whose alleged negligence contributed to the death of a fetus. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough, said her bill is not about abortion but about protecting the rights of parents who chose to have a child, only to have that child taken from them by another person’s negligence.

Supporters of the bill, mostly Republicans, pointed to similar laws in all other New England states and in roughly 40 states nationwide. They posed a series of rhetorical questions that asked why pregnant family members in Maine would be denied the same recourse as people in other states in pursuing wrongful death civil actions against domestic abusers, drunken drivers or other hypothetical perpetrators of harm to fetuses.

Opponents said Volk’s bill would establish personhood for a fetus, a change that would “alter 193 years of Maine law as to the interpretation of who may recover for injuries,” according to Rep. Kimberly Monaghan-Derrig, D-Cape Elizabeth.

Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a doctor, criticized the bill because it would establish a legal status for a fetus separate from the mother, which would increase the likelihood that a doctor treating a difficult pregnancy could be sued for wrongful death.

Representatives who backed Volk’s bill argued vociferously that it should not be considered an assault on a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion.

“It protects a right to choose and acknowledges a family’s right,” Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said. “It gives value to a life that would have brought joy into a family on the day of its birth.”

The bill failed by an 82-60 tally.

All three measures now go to the Senate for further debate and votes.

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