AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republicans will look to repeal recent Democratic abortion-rights expansions if they return to power in Augusta after the 2022 midterms, particularly if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision next year.
But they could face an uphill battle and a risky political fight in a state that has some of the strongest legal protections for abortion of any U.S. state and where public opinion is generally in favor of the procedure being legal in most or all cases.
The signals come as conservative high-court justices telegraphed this week they may uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. The final ruling, which will likely not come until June, could have an immediate effect on abortion rights nationwide. Any Republican effort would likely be more limited in Maine, where politics are now under firm Democratic control.
“There are some states that have put in trigger laws and, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it automatically bans abortions,” noted Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, which opposes abortion, “and Maine is clearly not one of those states.”
Maine lawmakers codified the right to an abortion prior to fetal viability, usually around 24 weeks, in 1993 under former Gov. John McKernan, a Republican. The issue has not been especially controversial at the state level here since then. Polling from Pew Research in 2014 found Maine ranked sixth-highest among U.S. states in terms of support for abortion, with 64 percent of adults saying it should be legal in most or all cases.
That environment explains in part why Maine Republicans were unsuccessful at enacting abortion restrictions seen in other states when they last had control of Augusta in 2011 and 2012, with former Gov. Paul LePage in office.
One bill to give legal standing to a fetus in the event of an assault on a pregnant woman was rejected by Democrats and a handful of Republicans, with opponents saying it could be used to chip away at abortion rights. Lawmakers also turned down a measure at that time to add a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can receive an abortion — a common restriction in conservative states — with nine Senate Republicans siding with Democrats to kill the bill.
But the number of Republicans supportive of abortion rights has dwindled. Every legislative Republican voted for a bill this year aiming to repeal Medicaid funding for abortions, an item Gov. Janet Mills got passed early in her tenure. All but two Republicans voted for a bill that would have required providers to tell patients receiving a medication abortion that it can be reversed, a practice not supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
LePage, who is challenging Mills in 2022, has opposed abortion rights, speaking regularly at anti-abortion rallies around the State House during his tenure. But he was reticent to outline an agenda on that issue on Thursday, a day after arguments before the Supreme Court showed that a repeal of Roe v. Wade was a real possibility.
LePage did not answer questions about whether he would favor a law similar to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban if it is upheld by the court or support other changes to abortion laws, saying in a statement that his mother “gave [him] life” despite a difficult childhood and that he would do whatever he could as governor to “further promote adoption.”
Mills quickly signaled she would resist any efforts to roll back abortion access. She and fellow Democrats quickly expanded it when they won full control of Augusta in 2018, allowing Medicaid to cover the procedure and allowing more mid-level health care practitioners to perform it.
Those pieces of legislation were transformational, said Nicole Clegg, the vice president of public policy for the Maine chapter of Planned Parenthood, a pro-abortion rights group, but she pointed to neighboring New Hampshire — a state with politics somewhat similar to Maine’s — passing a 24-week ban on the procedure in all cases except when the mother’s life is at risk this year.
Clegg said the Supreme Court overturning Roe may not immediately result in legal changes in Maine, but it will likely result in people from other states traveling to get the procedure. Any such move would also elevate the issue in state politics ahead of the 2022 election.
“It’s sort of impossible for me to imagine how this wouldn’t influence elections,” she said.
It is likely anti-abortion advocates would not take direct aim at limiting the procedure. Conley pointed to the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortions for women who receive Medicaid and the increased use of telemedicine for abortions as two areas advocates targeting in Maine, regardless of whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said Republicans likely would not be successful if they tried to eliminate abortion access outright, a move he said would not be popular. But he saw potential in shortening the timeframe that abortions are legal and restoring the requirement for parental consent for minors in all circumstances.
If they were not successful, he predicted the issue could go to Maine voters in a referendum.
“I think it’s going to be a hard fight,” he said.