The conservative Republican base in Augusta is providing new traction for old efforts to curtail access in Maine to abortion, sex education and birth control.
Bills pending before the Legislature would tighten up parental notification requirements, impose a 24-hour waiting period and require the reading of a detailed description of the developing fetus to any woman or teenager seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
One measure would require parents to sign an “opt in” permission statement to allow their children to participate in school-based sex-ed classes that include information about birth control and pregnancy termination in addition to promoting sexual abstinence. Another measure would require parental consent before a teen could be provided with prescription birth control, and yet another seeks to make it a separate crime when a fetus is harmed or killed in the course of a violent attack against a pregnant woman.
Jim Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Tuesday the restrictive proposals are likely to meet with a warmer reception now than they have in the past, thanks to the pro-life platform adopted by the empowered Maine Republican Party.
“The chances are a lot better now for passage of these kinds of changes than they have been anytime in the past couple of decades,” he said. “This is a classic example of both sides claiming they’re defending freedom from government intrusion.”
The sponsoring lawmakers — all Republicans — say the bills are not part of any organized assault on reproductive rights in Maine.
“I’m not looking to end abortion, or make it harder, or make anyone jump through a bunch of hoops,” said Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, who is the sponsor of L.D. 116, “An Act to Require a 24-hour Waiting Period Prior to an Abortion.” Clark said he was moved to submit his bill when a young unmarried female friend was told she was pregnant and was offered information about terminating the pregnancy the same day.
“The nurse tried to talk her into an abortion,” Clark said. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask to get a night’s sleep first before someone makes such a life-altering decision.”
Similarly, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, just wants to make sure parents are notified when their underage daughters seek abortions.
“I have to give written permission for my son to go snow skiing,” the second-term lawmaker said. “I can’t imagine finding out after the fact that my teenage daughter had an abortion.”
Crafts said he feels certain that most Mainers do not know it is legal for a minor female to get an abortion without her parents’ knowledge.
Crafts said the government has no right to interfere in parents’ responsible relationship with their children, especially in the high-stakes issues of sexuality, contraception and abortion. Even though similar legislation has been proposed and failed before, “I am confident it will pass this time,” he said.
According to Sarah Standiford of the Maine Women’s Lobby, the same “raft” of anti-choice bills has been floated several times in the past, looking to restrict access to reproductive services for women and their partners. Although the language of several of these proposals is still being finished and is not yet publicly available, Standiford said, the issues they raise are familiar.
“These are all things we’ve seen before,” she said. “Thirty-eight years after Roe vs. Wade, Maine women are still facing challenges to these guaranteed rights.”
And because the Blaine House and both houses of the Maine Legislature are Republican-ruled, anti-choice organizations and individuals see an opportunity to succeed where earlier efforts have failed, she said.
“I am concerned,” Standiford said Tuesday. “But this is really about government intrusion into private health care decisions between a woman and her physician. Time and time again, bipartisan legislatures have rejected these initiatives, and I expect they’ll do so again.”
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said lawmakers are looking to fix a situation that isn’t broken.
“Maine has one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion in the nation,” Bellows said. “I am concerned that this assault on education, contraception and abortion will undermine the health and safety of women and girls in Maine.”
Maine law already requires medical providers to educate their patients about the potential complications of abortion, including both the physical and psychological risks. And girls under 18 who feel they cannot safely seek the involvement of the parents must be able to seek support from another adult, such as a trusted family member or clergy as Maine law allows, she said.
In addition, Bellows said, despite the political turnover in Augusta, there’s little to suggest that voter attitudes have changed toward existing Maine laws governing reproductive services.
“That’s why it’s puzzling to me that Maine lawmakers would push for these changes,” she said, “when existing law has worked well for decades.”
Conservative anti-abortion religious leader Robert Emrich said that in his role as pastor of the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth and as a board member of the Maine Right to Life organization, he often is confronted with the unintended consequences of a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.
“A lot of women have come in for help dealing with the very serious emotional consequences of abortion,” he said.
Emrich said he expects the proposals will fall on more receptive legislative ears this time around.
“No one is looking to prohibit or block or make abortion more difficult,” he said. “This is a women’s health issue.”
Pro-life organizations in Maine are organizing a statewide prayer vigil beginning March 9, the first day of Lent on the Christian calendar. The event is part of a nationwide “40 Days for Life” demonstration to end abortion.