AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine will soon expand abortion access, joining a half dozen states that leave it to doctors and patients to make the decision without restrictions on timing.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill into law Wednesday that allows abortions at any time if deemed medically necessary by a doctor, making the law one of the nation's least restrictive. The previous law banned abortions after a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, at roughly 24 weeks, but allowed an exception if the patient’s life is at risk.
“We must recognize the complexity of pregnancy,” Mills said. “And like every other health care procedure, we’ve got to take government out of the decision-making process and put the doctor and the patient in charge.”
The law goes into effect 90 days after the state Legislature’s work wraps up, as soon as next week.
Mills had said during her reelection campaign that the old law didn't need to be changed. But she reversed course after learning of a Maine veterinarian who needed to travel to Colorado for an abortion after learning at week 32 of her pregnancy that her unborn son had a fatal condition that would not allow him to survive.
The veterinarian, Dana Peirce, was present at the bill signing, standing behind the governor alongside medical providers in white jackets, several lawmakers and the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches.
Passage of the bill was considered a foregone conclusion in the Legislature where Democrats controlled both chambers, and there were enough co-sponsors to ensure passage.
But the bill nonetheless generated emotional debate.
Critics said the law's language was broader than necessary if the goal was simply to allow abortions in instances of a fatal fetal anomaly later in a pregnancy. They said it could lead to a dramatic increase in post-viability abortions, and that it puts too much faith in doctors to make a determination.
Large numbers of protesters were not in the State House on Wednesday as they were during the legislative debate. Instead, a lone demonstrator stood outside the governor's cabinet room holding a sign that called the law a “death sentence" for unborn babies.
National Right to Life criticized the new law on Wednesday, with President Carol Tobias calling it "open season on the unborn child in Maine."
Abortions later in pregnancy, known as termination for medical reasons or TFMRs, are rare. Nationally, about 1% happen after 21 weeks, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallies, which do not have full data from every state.
Nationally, many Republican-controlled states are doing just the opposite from what Maine did by either banning or restricting abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a patient's constitutional right to an abortion, leaving it up to individual states to regulate the procedure.
Most Democratic-controlled states have taken steps to protect abortion access, though none has gone as far as Maine since the Supreme Court ruling last year.
Beside Maine, six states leave the decision to get an abortion to doctors and their patients, without restrictions. They are Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, Peirce recounted her painful decision to have an abortion to spare further pain for her unborn son, and she said she's pleased that others facing the same circumstances will have a choice to have an abortion in Maine.
“I do want to recognize that another mother might not make the choice that I did, but I would never seek to take that decision away from her,” Peirce said.
The Rev. Jane Field of the Maine Council of Churches said that the group’s more than 400 congregations support the flexibility of the new law rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to abortion.
“We do not believe that anyone should be forced to remain pregnant by the government against the advice of their own doctor,” Field said.
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.