Here’s what the Supreme Court decision means for abortion access in Maine

Ralliers at a Women’s March at the State House in Augusta, Maine, in Jan. 2018. (Abukar Adan / Maine Public File)

The Supreme Court decision overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on Friday will have little to no immediate impact on access to abortions in Maine.

But abortion rights advocates fear — and abortion opponents hope — that could change if the political winds shift in the state, potentially as early as this November.

By eliminating the constitutional protections for abortion at the federal level, the high court made state governments (and politicians) the arbiters of abortion policy. And in Maine, women’s access to abortion is guaranteed by law.

While abortion has become a largely partisan issue in recent years, it was actually a Republican, former Gov. John McKernan, who proposed the state law reaffirming Maine women’s rights to access an abortion. The year was 1993, and tensions over the abortion issue were high nationally amid protests, clashes outside of clinics and attacks on some medical providers in other states.

The Act to Protect Reproductive Privacy in Maine stated that the state will not “restrict a woman’s exercise of her private decision to terminate a pregnancy before viability” except in narrow circumstances. Post-viability, abortions can only be performed by a doctor to preserve health or life of the mother.

That law is still on the books, so abortion will remain legal in Maine despite the court’s ruling on Roe.

In fact, Gov. Janet Mills and the Democrats who currently control both chambers of the Legislature have expanded access to abortion in recent years, as they promised to do during campaigns.

For instance, in 2019 Mills signed into law a bill that allows more medical professionals to perform abortions. Additionally, the state’s version of Medicaid, known as MaineCare, as well as private insurance providers are now required to cover the procedure under another new law.

Laws can change

Democrats currently control both chambers of the Maine Legislature and Mills has pledged to resist any attempt to rollback abortion laws. So there is little chance that abortion policies in Maine will be immediately affected by the court’s decision.

But laws are easier to change than constitutional language.

Nearly 30 years after McKernan’s codification of abortion rights passed the Maine Legislature with strong bipartisan support, Republican politicians in Maine who support protecting access to abortion are about as scarce as Democrats who support restricting access. And Republicans are hoping for big wins this November in the race for governor and for State House seats.

Mills and her Democratic allies have made preserving that access a top rallying cry as the 2022 election cycle heats up. And Mills reiterated her pledge moments after the long-anticipated Supreme Court ruling on Friday morning.

“This decision is a fundamental assault on women’s rights and on reproductive freedom that will do nothing to stop abortion,” Mills said in a statement. “In fact, it will only make abortion less safe and jeopardize the lives of women across the nation. In Maine, I will defend the right to reproductive health care with everything I have, and I pledge to the people of Maine that, so long as I am Governor, my veto pen will stand in the way of any effort to undermine, rollback, or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine.”

Mills’ opponent this November, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, is an abortion opponent who frequently attended an annual Hands Around the Capitol event organized by Maine Right to Life.

LePage has been relatively quiet — publicly, at least — on the abortion issue since the draft opinion to overturn Roe was leaked in May. At the time, LePage said he supports federal restrictions on the use of taxpayer money to pay for abortions and said Maine’s own prohibition on post-viability abortions “should keep pace with modern, medical technology.”

“Governors receive legislation on their desk from locally elected state representatives and state senators,” LePage said in a statement. “In Maine, our local officials listen to the people.”

Republican party officials in the state are, however, using abortion to energize voters and raise campaign cash, just like Democrats on the other side of the issue, as they attempt to win offices that would be needed to change policies.

“The Maine GOP is fighting to protect the lives of the unborn, but we can not do it alone,” Maine GOP chairwoman Demi Kouzounas wrote in a fundraising email shortly after Supreme Court declined to stay the Texas abortion ban. “We NEED your help. If you are pro-life, DONATE today to recruit, train, and elect candidates who will fight for the unborn and stand up to Governor Mills her friends’ pro-abortion stance.”

Leaders of the anti-abortion movement in the state, such as the Christian Civic League of Maine, have suggested that Republicans would likely try to reverse some of the more recent law changes. One likely target is the relatively new requirement that MaineCare cover the procedure, which critics say is taxpayer-funded abortions.

Some abortion rights supporters, meanwhile, have called for a constitutional amendment to guarantee a woman’s right to access to abortion.

But previous attempts at an amendment have failed. And given the strong Republican opposition to abortion, it is highly unlikely that supporters would be unable to muster the two-thirds votes needed in both chambers of the Legislature that would be necessary before even presenting the issues to voters on a statewide ballot.

Abortion trends and other impacts in Maine

Maine was the fifth state to guarantee access to abortion when the law was passed in 1993. Additional states have followed suit. But 26 states are expected to ban or severely restrict abortion now that Roe has been overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for reproductive rights.

The court’s decision is likely to prompt women residing in states that outlaw or severely restrict abortion to seek those services elsewhere, however.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England has reported that women have already traveled to Maine from as far away as Texas, where lawmakers have passed austere restrictions and are expected to largely ban the procedure without Roe.

Maine has the second-lowest abortion rate in the Northeast, at 10.1 abortions for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, according to data compiled by the Guttmacher Institute.

At the same time, the rate of abortion increased by roughly 15% in Maine between 2017 and 2020, which was the largest jump among Northeast states and more than double the national average of 7%.

Guttmacher Institute data shows that there were 2,370 abortions performed in Maine in 2020 compared with 2,040 in 2017. Although multiple factors contributed to the increase, the institute said requiring private insurers and MaineCare to cover abortion procedures was likely one of them.

This story was originally published by Maine Public, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.