AUGUSTA, Maine — In 2013, Democrats with solid majorities in the Legislature were able to handily defeat several bills that sought to restrict access to or move the state away from legal abortion, but a lot has changed since then in both Maine and the nation.
Could the fight over abortion ignite again this year? If it does, there are lots of signs that those efforts won’t be so easily turned away. As proponents and opponents prepare to mark the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Jan. 22, 1973, U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, let’s take a look at the landscape.
Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin are standing with anti-abortion forces. As first reported Friday by the BDN’s Mario Moretto, both the governor and Maine’s 2nd District congressman will attend the annual “Hands Around the Capitol” rally on Saturday in Augusta, which involves a march from St. Michael School, a private Catholic school, to the State House. Poliquin, the only anti-abortion member of Maine’s congressional delegation, could soon cast a vote on a Republican-led initiative in the U.S. House to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Republican legislative leaders are firmly anti-abortion. While this might not be a vast change from past Legislatures, all five Republican leaders at the State House are anti-abortion. While abortion is in general terms a partisan issue — and a litmus test for most Republican candidates, at least at the national level — many politicians point out that there are numerous exceptions within both major parties. Still, with such a uniform stance among Republican leadership in the new Legislature, any anti-abortion bill that comes forward is likely to see strong GOP support.
Speaking of anti-abortion bills, Republican Sen. Paul Davis of Sangerville is proposing An Act To Strengthen the Consent Laws for Abortions Performed on Minors and Incapacitated Persons, a carbon copy of failed bills from the past two legislative sessions. Davis’s bill would require parental or guardian consent for anyone who is incapacitated or under the age of 18 to have an abortion. A similar version of the bill received more support than any of the other abortion bills considered in 2013, according to Davis, which is why he’s trying it again. He said he believes the United States as a whole is swinging against abortion.
“New technology has made it clearer and clearer that it’s not just a gob of flesh; it’s actually a human being you can take pictures of, hear the heartbeat and see the fingers,” Davis said. “I believe seeing is believing for a lot of people.”
Kate Brogan, vice president of public affairs for Maine Family Planning, said her organization is concerned about at least two other bill titles that she suspects might involve attempts to limit abortion rights, including a redux of a religious freedom bill by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting.
Davis is not the only one who sees a trend. National media outlets are reporting that Republican majorities in Congress could lead to more aggressive attempts to limit or curtail abortion rights after years of stagnation. Politico reported this week that one strategy at work is to attack the issue at the state level to breed support for federal action. All of this activity — including the GOP’s introduction of five abortion bills in the first week of the new congressional session — is expected to force decisions in the courts. Last year, a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the use of buffer zones outside abortion clinics, which caused repercussions in Maine.
There’s also evidence the other way. In May 2014, a poll by the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund PAC found that 57 percent of Mainers identify themselves as someone who believes abortion should be legal in many circumstances and that 68 percent of voters prefer candidates who support a woman’s right to make private decisions about her health. A range of other polls in recent years have come to similar conclusions.
Brogan said the groundswell around anti-abortion sentiment is real but probably not indicative that attitudes are changing much.
“The Maine Legislature has supported reproductive freedom consistently for decades,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m pro-life but I wouldn’t impose my beliefs on anyone else.’ It goes far beyond simply identifying yourself as pro-choice or pro-life. I don’t think anyone should take the recent election as a referendum on reproductive rights.”
Kate Brogan is the sister of BDN reporter Beth Brogan, who did not contribute to this report.