Maine’s top newspaper editors joined Maine Public Broadcasting’s Jennifer Rooks for a “month in review” segment last Friday in which they discussed Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to end Maine’s 30-year ban on late-term abortions.
Mills’ push to allow abortionists to terminate pregnancies well after the viability of the baby comes after she vowed multiple times during the campaign to leave Maine’s abortion laws untouched.
After the Maine Wire drew attention to the slanted coverage of her flip flop in Maine’s top media outlets, the two major newspapers did address the abrupt change in her policy more fulsomely.
Yet Maine’s distinguished media professionals have so far remained reluctant to suggest Mills was lying during the campaign.
In the radio segment, every single newspaper editor expressed the same slanted point of view, defended the governor’s duplicity, and made questionable statements about the issue. Rather than newspaper editors, they sounded like political operatives spinning an unflattering story to make a powerful politician look good. It was unseemly.
So let’s examine a portion of the interview on one of the largest news outlets in the state of Maine, an exercise that will illuminate exactly how Maine’s media ecosystem functions. (You can listen along with the video below.)
Rooks kicked off the radio segment with the key political question, albeit with public radio’s characteristic politeness.
“Did the Governor simply change her mind or was she intending to do this all along?” she asked.
(To translate: Does the governor have no firm position on late-term abortion or did she lie to everyone about what she was really going to do?)
Siobhan Brett of the Portland Press Herald, Ben Bragdon of the Augusta version of the Portland Press Herald, and Susan Young of the Bangor Daily News brought exactly the kind of intellectual diversity you would expect to the debate. They all had the same position, they all defended the governor, and all of made claims about the bill that are unsupported by what we currently know about the bill, which is limited to what Mills and staff have said about it.
“Well I certainly can’t speculate on what’s in the governor’s mind and what she’s thinking,” said Young, before speculating at length on Mills’ thinking. (Her purpose for saying this at the outset seems to be because her lack of mind-reading abilities means she never has to use the L-Word in relation to her governor…)
“I think given that there are… several proposals in the legislature — we don’t know the details we just have the bill titles — to change Maine’s abortion laws, and probably to make them more stringent, the governor thought it was important to protect this very small subset of procedures that end pregnancy,” said Young.
In other words, Young’s understanding of the situation is that Mills’ late-term abortion flip flop was driven by the threat that pro-life conservatives might get a bill passed.
Presumably Young saw the results from November’s election, which left pro-lifers as a minority of a minority of a minority in the State House.
Yet the fear that this handful of state lawmakers was somehow going to build a veto-proof supermajority to restrict abortion rights is what motivated Mills to change her mind.
That analysis doesn’t have much relationship with reality, but it does serve an important function.
In an imaginary world where Maine’s pro-life lawmakers actually had legislative power, Mills’ push to legalize late-term abortion is not a duplicitous flip flop, but is instead a defensive action. She didn’t lie, then; in Young’s telling, Mills just courageously stepped into the breach to defend women’s health from awful anti-abortion knuckle-draggers who want to bring back the backalleys and coat-hangers.
Back to Young:
“These are situations where things have gone terribly wrong, with the fetus, with the mother, and the health of both are at risk. The fetus may not survive very long outside the womb for very long at all, if at all, may be already suffering, the mother’s health is in grave danger. And it seems to me that the governor wants to ensure that doctors continue to have the right to terminate these pregnancies in these extreme situations where it’s medically necessary,” she said.
Young sticks dutifully to the Mills’ administration’s PR campaign around the unreleased abortion bills. The press rollout revolved around a couple whose doctor detected at a very late stage a health problem with their child that was going to be fatal. According to the mother, she could not obtain an abortion in Maine, so she had to fly to Colorado. Mills’ messaging was calculated to say: this isn’t about late-term abortion generally, this is about this one specific, rare case that everyone can sympathize with. The case is tragic, but the obvious question is whether situations like this might be addressed with a more narrow proposal, more in line with Mills’ campaign promises. That obvious question is never raised during the radio segment.
Young is correct that many late-term abortions occur under the circumstances she describes. But many occur for different circumstances, when the neither the mother’s health nor the baby’s health are in jeopardy. According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, many women reported that “trouble deciding about the abortion” delayed the procedure until later in their pregnancy. One in five told researchers a disagreement with the father delayed the procedure. This is just one small study of a few hundred abortion survivors, but the information would suggest that it’s not as clear cut an issue as Mills, and Young, make it out to be. It’s not at all clear that the late-term abortions Mills is seeking to legalize are exclusively linked to cases like the one she is using to sell the policy change.
“That’s my understanding that what we’re talking about is cases that occur very rarely in Maine, but she wants to make sure that depending on what happens in the legislature that these kind of procedures can continue to be performed to protect the health of women,” said Young.
It’s worth pointing out that the texts of the abortion bills Mills has said she will support have not been released. Unless Young is privy to insider information, then she has little reason to have that understanding based on what the Mills administration has publicly communicated about the proposals. All we know so far about them is that Mills says women will be able to have post-viability abortions if a doctor says O.K. Nowhere in Mills’ press release or statements does it suggest abortionists will be required to determine the health of the mother or the baby is in jeopardy. That may be the case. But right now, Mills and Democrats in the legislature have not explained whether they will seek any restrictions whatsoever on the ability of a woman to obtain an abortion, apart from a doctor giving the O.K.
“Again we don’t know what will happen with any of these bills in the legislature. I mean, Democrats are in control but they’re going to need support of Republicans if they want to advance bills like this,” said Young, espousing an odd view of how legislative majorities work.
After Young offered her thought-provoking analysis, Rook threw the question to Brett of the Press Herald: “Did the Governor simply change her mind or was she intending to do this all along?”
Like Young, Brett declined to answer the question, launched into a defense of Mills, and suggested that Mills was actually the victim of unfair media coverage.
“I think one of things that has unfortunately clouded coverage of things of that past week is the question of Gov. Mills having gone back on her word, and campaigning on the fact that she wouldn’t make the change,” she said.
As a reminder, that’s a newspaper editor saying it’s unfortunate that her journalists had to mention Mills going back on her word. That’s not a political consultant critiquing an ally’s press strategy, though you would be forgiven for confusing the two.
“And to my mind it’s a pity that the governor’s understanding of this extreme sort of rare, rare subset of subsets pertaining to fetal abnormality wasn’t actually taken up during the campaign,” she said.
Brett’s comment dances around the entire point of Rooks’ question. It’s not a “pity” that the issue didn’t come up during the debate; it was a carefully calculated decision by Mills. Every time abortion came up during the debates, Mills went into Marco Rubio mode robotically delivering a well-rehearsed, focus-grouped line about “reproductive rights.” If her campaign staff saw an advantage, she would have communicated differently on abortion. Nothing prevented her from mentioning these rare exceptions she wanted to accommodate by changing Maine’s law — except her own political calculations. And: note again, Brett hasn’t seen the bill, but she’s very confident that it only applies to the rarest of rare subset of subset of microsets of late-term abortion cases.
“I think this is something that voters have the capacity to understand, absorb, and embrace. And I think that there was an opportunity for her to explain, yeah, I’m not looking for a wholesale expansion. But I am going to make an effort to ensure that on very very fine points and details that we’re going to create safeguards to protect people that are vulnerable in ways that are a fraction of a decimal point of the abortions her in the state,” she said.
Here again Brett, like Young, makes an assertion that is not supported by what we know about Mills’ proposal. Yes, late-term abortions are rare. But nothing Mills has said about the her abortion bills suggests this is anything other than a “wholesale expansion” of post-viability abortion in Maine. Rather than an analysis of what Mills has actually proposed, Brett offers a politically contrived best-case-scenario, the purpose of which is to make Mills look like something other than a duplicitous, unprincipled liar on the topic of abortion.
If your keeping score at home, so far there is zero daylight between Maine’s top newspaper editors when it comes to analyzing Mills going back on a campaign promise and doing the very thing she explicitly said she would not do. Both editors conclude that it’s all just very unfortunately that we have to talk about it. Shame on us for noticing the contradiction!
Next up is Bragdon, who sounds like that kid in college who didn’t do the reading but still wants to talk during class.
“This is a very complex issue,” he said. “It doesn’t boil down to absolutes very well.”
Bragdon then proceeds to completely ignore the legislative issues at hand in Maine:
“I think we saw that when Roe vs Wade was struck down and a number of kind of absolutist bans went into effect. A lot of even anti-abortion, people who have been anti-abortion for years were kind of taken aback by some of the consequences of that. You know, you have a 12-year-old girl who was raped and you’re going to force her to carry that pregnancy to term. Um, some people who need medications for something completely unrelated aren’t going to be able to get those medications. So, you know, when people talk about this issue and divide it into two camps, that doesn’t really cover all these things,” he said.
“Like Siobhan said, as much as we talked about abortion in the campaign, it wasn’t very illuminating as to like you know it wasn’t very specific,” he said.
This is just false. It was very, very specific. Mills said specifically that she would not seek any changes to Maine’s abortion laws. The word “any” would contain the changes she’s now seeking. Indeed, Mills was asked point blank whether she would seek to change the specific viability requirement in Maine’s law, and she specifically said no. There was never any reason to navigate during the campaign the policy area we now find ourselves in because both viable candidates agreed that Maine’s abortion law was satisfactory as is.
“And, uh, it comes, you know, this is, trying to make complex medical policy through politics with all that stuff in it, and all the noise around it, is really difficult,” said Bragdon.
Again, like Young before him, we’re led to believe that Mills is facing tremendous adversity here. That’s not the case. She could have said during the debates or at any time before the election that she wants to change Maine’s abortion laws to accomodate rare medical problems. That would not have been difficult. Maybe unpopular with some voters, but not difficult to articulate.
But, to Bragdon’s credit, he does come the closest to actually describing the political dynamic in play:
“So I think you know people are gonna see this as, sure the governor going back a little bit on what she said, but also um they’ll be able to see why they’re putting these bills forward and how they follow with Maine’s tradition of protecting reproductive rights,” he said.
(The listener will be forgiven for wondering whether Maine’s tradition on reproductive rights has also included the 30-year-long bipartisan consensus on banning on late-term abortions.)
“So some people might look at this and feel a little betrayed by Janet Mills since she was so clear in the campaign in a way that Paul LePage was not. But I think she feels like she thinks she has the trust of the Maine people and enough political capital to do this through and because she feels it’s the right thing to do that it’s worth it.”
Bragdon is right that Mills has calculated that she can get away with it. Of course she can! She will likely never run for office again. And, importantly, the left-wing media in the state (ahem) will cover for her. Yet even when he’s accurately saying Mills either lied during the campaign or is breaking a campaign promise, he has to temper it with a “little bit.” This wasn’t a “little bit” or “somewhat” of a reversal. This was as major and significant as a flip flop gets, but the people running Maine’s newspapers seem incapable of coming out and saying that. It goes without saying that these newspaper folk only seem to extend this polite, deferential courtesy to liberal Democrats.
All three of them agreed that the law — which none of them has seen — is really super narrow and only applies to the limited case of woman with difficult pregnancies, regardless of what the Mills administration has said about the policies. And none of them question the honesty of a PR campaign designed to manipulate their thinking, which is all the more damning considering they’re giving the benefit of the doubt to a woman who just revealed herself to be duplicitous on the issue of abortion.
For what it’s worth, here’s how the editor of the Maine Wire would have handled the question:
Rooks: “Did the Governor simply change her mind or was she intending to do this all along?”
One of those options must be true, Jennifer, and neither reflect well on the governor.
If she changed her mind, then you have to question her principles and how seriously she’s studied the issue.
Since she’s a lawyer, I tend to think she’s very well informed about the issue and has well-developed opinions on it.
So I tend to believe it’s the latter, and if it’s the latter, if she intended to do this all along, then she’s a liar. I’m sorry, Jennifer, I don’t mean to be harsh, but she said one thing, then she did another, and she probably did so for cold, calculated, political reasons. And that makes her a liar.
She lied to all Maine voters over and over again during the campaign. Do we have the audio, Jennifer? Can we cue that up? Oh, you don’t…?
And if she lied over and over again to Maine voters about abortion, then you have to doubt everything she said and every promise she made during the campaign. Will she mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for Maine school children? She said no during the campaign, but now we know that promise doesn’t really matter. And how should the Wabanaki representatives feels about this? Can they trust Mills’ word? Can we trust her to keep her word on gun control?
In a state with honest, non-partisan media, this would be a real problem from the governor’s credibility going forward. Lawmakers might also wonder whether than can trust a politician who was so calculatingly deceptive on such a major issue.
On the issue of abortion itself, it’s important for your listeners to understand that we don’t have any bill language yet. All we have is a PR campaign from the governor and Democratic lawmakers. So the proof will be in the pudding. But right now what they have said is that the policy they are seeking to enact will legalize any post-viability abortion as long as a doctor approves. So although the policies are being pitched alongside an op-ed about a very rare case involving an issue with a baby’s health that was only discovered very late in the pregnancy, there is no indication at this point that the governor is seeking any restrictions whatsoever on post-viability abortions in Maine.
This is a radical change from her campaign promise, a calculated and deceptive act by the governor, and journalists who pretend otherwise are only deceiving their listeners and readers.