Maine Democrats may seek change in state constitution to protect abortion access

May 5—With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to eliminate a woman's right to abortion at the federal level, some Maine Democrats are hoping to protect access for Maine women, possibly by amending the state's constitution.

A draft Supreme Court opinion leaked this week revealed that a majority of the justices support overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the draft is authentic but stressed that it is not a final decision in the pending case. The ruling is expected to be released in June or July.

If Roe is overturned as expected, governors and legislatures in Maine and nationwide will get to decide whether to allow abortions and under what circumstances. And a constitutional amendment may be among the proposals both parties will bring forward in the next legislative session in Augusta.

The governor's office and all the seats in the Maine Senate and House are up for grabs this November, so it's unclear which party will control state government and set the agenda. But Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, who is from a solid blue district and not facing a primary challenger, said she may propose an amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee the right to an abortion in Maine.

Voters in Vermont will vote on such an amendment to that state's constitution this fall. If it's enacted, Vermont would be the first state in the country to guarantee a right to an abortion through a statewide ballot measure. A similar proposal is being discussed in California.

"It sounds like a great idea to me," said Reckitt, who has sponsored several unsuccessful attempts to add an amendment to the state constitution that would guarantee equal rights for women.


"The irony is that the major argument about not passing the Equal Rights Amendment (we) heard from Republicans is that it was going to allow abortions," she said. "Never mind that abortions are already legal in this state. There's a part of me that really wants to go ahead with an initiative like Vermont's and I'm certainly going to investigate it."

Amending Maine's constitution is not easy. A constitutional amendment must receive approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate and then be approved by voters in a statewide referendum to be enacted. Constitutional amendments have more permanency than state laws, which can be more easily changed when control of state government gets handed from one party to the other.

A ruling striking down Roe v. Wade would not immediately change abortion access in Maine. Abortions are allowed under Maine law, but in most cases only before viability, which is defined as "the state of fetal development when the life of the fetus may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-supportive systems."

Viability generally occurs between 22 and 24 weeks. After viability, an abortion may be performed only when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

If the Supreme Court makes abortion a state-level decision as expected, Maine's Legislature and governor would get the ability to place tighter limits, or even ban abortion outright. Gov. Janet Mills has vowed to protect a women's right to choose, while her challenger, former Gov. Paul LePage, responded to the draft ruling by emphasizing his support for abortion restrictions.

Maine's Legislature is not considered a hotbed of abortion debates, but lawmakers introduce and debate abortion-related bills every year.

In the most recent legislative session that began last year, Republicans sponsored six bills that would restrict abortion access, but most of them failed largely along party lines because Democrats controlled the House, Senate and Blaine House.


Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, sponsored a bill that would have required the burial or cremation of fetal remains resulting from an abortion, miscarriage or fetal death, regardless of the gestational age. He believes that Maine's law is too permissive and hoped his bill would discourage abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at risk.

"This (bill) was to give closure to the family and still have something so later you could go back and respect your loss," Cyrway said. "I've seen people with pets have little rocks or tombstones in their yards, yet we can't do that for our own fetuses. I'm kind of appalled this didn't get more interest."

Rep. Kathy Javner, R-Chester, sponsored a bill that would have prohibited MaineCare from covering the costs of abortions. As an anti-abortion Republican, Javner said she would like to see abortion access rolled back if her party takes control of the Blaine House, or either the House or Senate.

"Here in the state of Maine we have made (abortion) so widespread that it's a form of birth control," Javner said.

Reckitt pushed back on the assertion that abortion had become a form of birth control.

"Who the hell would want to use abortion for birth control? That's crazy," Reckitt said. "It's painful. In some instances, it's costly. It's difficult to obtain, schedule and get to, even in Maine."

Rep. Abigail Griffin, R-Levant, sponsored two abortion related bills. One would have required health care providers to conduct an ultrasound on pregnant women and inform them of their options, including parenting the child or giving it up for adoption, at least 48 hours before an abortion, unless there was an emergency. Her other bill would have required that medical professionals tell pregnant women that it may be possible to reverse the effects of an abortion-inducing drug.

"I feel it is important that a woman have all the information in order to make the best decision for them," Griffin said in an email. "It is a life-changing decision."

Griffin did not respond to an interview request and did not respond to questions about her bills sent by email.


Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said those types of bills represent a new assault on women's right to choose. She said Maine lawmakers typically propose bills targeting a minor's access to abortion or limits on later-term abortions.

"We saw a couple bills introduced last session about this so-called abortion reversal — this sort of made up practice and forcing people to get all of this medically inaccurate information when they're being counseled about abortion care," Clegg said. "It's all about shaming people."

Clegg said she will be watching the vote in Vermont carefully, while also considering ways to preserve abortion access in Maine.

"We are paying careful attention to what's going on in other states with constitutional amendments," she said. "That is definitely something that we will be considering."

Drew Gattine, chair of the Maine Democratic Party, said a constitutional amendment may be worth pursuing next session but winning the elections in November is the first priority.

"We need to protect abortion rights as much as possible. If (a constitutional amendment) was a possibility, that would be something we can consider," he said. "Right now the pathway to protecting these rights is re-electing Gov. Mills and trying to grow the majorities in the state Legislature."


In addition to repelling efforts to restrict abortions, Democrats were able to enhance protections last session to abortion access.

Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell, sponsored a bill that has been signed into law that enacts a protest-free buffer zone within 8 feet of a medical facility, so people seeking reproductive health care and other medical services aren't intimidated or denied entry by protesters.

McCreight said state lawmakers need to remain vigilant to protect a women's right to choose in light of the possible Supreme Court decision to end Roe v. Wade.

"The message we all have to take from this is that Maine and state's like Maine have done a really good job of protecting access, but we need to stay vigilant and stay strong so we maintain that," McCreight said. "Unless we get federal law to protect access or enact a constitutional amendment, we need to keep our protective laws intact."