The Maine House of Representatives voted Thursday night to approve Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to eliminate restrictions on late-term abortion in Maine, bringing the most controversial bill of the legislative session one step closer to becoming law.
The 74-72 vote means it’s all but certain that the Democrat-controlled Senate will vote Friday to send one of the most radical abortion bills ever written to the Blaine House to become law under Gov. Mills’ pen.
The bill was a top priority of leading abortion clinic operator Planned Parenthood, a group whose political allies spent heavily in the 2022 election cycle to make last night’s vote a reality.
Despite promising multiple times during her campaign against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage that she would not seek to change Maine’s abortion laws, Mills introduced the bill, LD 1619, less than two months after winning a second term.
Though Mills said specifically that she would not seek to change Maine’s 30-year-old viability restriction, which limits abortions after 24-weeks except in rare cases, the legislation she backed would do precisely that.
Although Mills will not face re-election and is unlikely to pursue another elected office, backing the late-term abortion bill cost her immense political capital. The governor’s strident reversal on a key campaign promise raised the questions about the sincerity of her campaign promises. But many Republicans weren’t surprised by the pivot, considering Planned Parenthood spent more than $830,000 backing Mills and other Democrats.
In explaining her pivot from the policy stance she articulated on the campaign trail, the former District Attorney and Attorney General linked her dramatic flip flop to a Maine woman who published a newspaper op-ed about her abortion story.
The woman, Dana Pierce, said that her baby was diagnosed after 24-weeks gestation with a rare fetal abnormality that was fatal. In order to alleviate her baby’s pain and suffering, she decided to pursue an abortion; however, she said she was told it would not be legal in the state of Maine because, at 32-weeks-post gestation, she was too far along. Instead, she said she flew to Colorado for the procedure at a cost of $40,000.
In a Jan. 17 email, Mills wrapped her abortion legislation in Pierce’s story, stating, “Inspired by the experience of Yarmouth resident Dana Pierce, legislation seeks to ensure that Maine people are able to access reproductive health care they need, when they need it.”
At countless other moments, Democrats invoked Pierce’s story and similar stories about fatal fetal abnormalities to justify LD 1619, which they continuously said was only about those rare, limited instances. They consistently maintained and continue to maintain that those abortions are currently prohibited in Maine.
Pro-life Republicans, and some like-minded Democrats, disagreed.
By their reading of Maine law, abortions are allowed in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. In contrast, they saw LD 1619 as allowing elective abortions of healthy babies at any point during a pregnancy under the guise of limited, medically necessary cases.
Throughout the prolonged debate, the sides never arrived at a clear consensus as to what the bill would really do.
On Thursday night, a series of developments drastically changed the circumstances of the debate around LD 1619.
Suddenly, what had days earlier seemed an inevitable victory for Gov. Mills and Democratic leaders was pierced by a glimmer of hope, and the chance that perhaps the vote was still a toss up.
LATE NIGHT DRAMA
As the debate got underway on LD 1619, Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester) rose to deliver an impassioned plea to abandon the pursuit of late-term abortion. And as far left Democrats walked out of the House of Representatives in apparent protest, Arata made a stunning disclosure.
She revealed a document that showed Maine’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) had, at some point after May 17, changed publicly available legal guidance in a way that would support arguments made by backers of LD 1619.
That guidance — “Know Your Rights: Abortion in Maine” — originally stated: “Maine law also provides exceptions to the viability restriction to save the life or health of the pregnant person or in the case of a fatal fetal diagnosis.” (emphasis added)
Yet in May 2023, after critics of the bill had pointed out that abortions like Pierce’s were already legal in Maine, and that LD 1619 would instead create a much broader abortion statute, someone at the Attorney General’s Office altered the guidance document to remove the language about fatal fetal abnormalities.
The guidance document still appears verbatim at the same web address, but it now omits mention of fatal fetal abnormalities.
That slight change held major consequences. So will the story of how it came to be.
Abortion’s like Pierce’s would have been allowed under Maine’s current abortion laws — if you go by guidance the OAG posted at Maine.gov from July 2022 to May 2023.
But if you go by the OAG abortion guidance as it was altered to read sometime after May 17, then LD 1619 would be necessary to permit an abortion like Pierce’s.
In other words, Pierce’s heart-wrenching story was only legally and politically significant under the OAG’s new, secretly changed guidance.
Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office has not responded to inquiries about who made that change, whether he authorized it, and whether the change was based on political considerations.
Though the guidance does not carry the force of law, it is a reflection of how AG Frey’s office interpreted Maine existing abortion statute — at least until May 17.
That a secretive change was made to public guidance suggests someone in the OAG’s office believed that Republican claims about Maine’s existing abortion law and LD 1916 had merit.
The Maine Wire has filed a Freedom of Access Act request in order to obtain public records that might help shed light on how this pivotal guidance document was altered in such a politically significant way.
Pro-abortion officials and pro-life officials couldn’t agree even before this point on whether LD 1619 was necessary to allow post-viability abortions like Pierce’s.
But the revelation that Maine’s top law enforcement agency had shifted legal guidance on these important questions cast doubt on the claims supporters had been making.
The next stunning development Thursday night came from a far left Portland Democrat who had previously served as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ state director.
Rep. Ben Collings (D-Portland) moved to table the bill, a surprise motion that led to a brief huddle among party leaders.
The House then moved to recess briefly, leading to significant speculation as to whether Democratic leadership had the votes necessary to pass their signature piece of legislation.
As this was happening, it emerged that Rep. Collings had introduced a surprise last-minute floor amendment that would make LD 1619 more accurately reflect Democratic messaging around the bill.
Rather than vague language about “standards of care” and provisions that left many medical and legal experts saying the bill would still allow near limitless abortion, Collings’ floor amendment would very narrowly limit post-viability abortion to cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, i.e. cases like Dana Pierce’s.
In other words, Collings’ amendment, in theory, posed a dilemma to pro-abortion Democrats.
It gave them a chance to show that what they were saying about LD 1619 — that it was limited in scope and not intended to apply to elective late-term abortions of healthy babies — was true.
If LD 1619’s backers genuinely only wanted post-viability abortions to happen in cases of fatal fetal abnormality or when the mother’s health was in jeopardy, then they would have had no objection to Collings’ amendment.
If, on the other hand, Democrats actually believed that LD 1619 was much broader in scope, as Republicans had argued all along, if they had intended all along to market an unlimited abortion bill was something it was not, then they would object to Collings’ amendment.
As the recess stretched from thirty minutes to nearly five hours, lobbyists from Planned Parenthood made it clear they did not support Collings’ amendment, as did more strident supporters of the bill.
It also became clear that Arata and Collings had changed the political dynamic around the most-watched vote yet in the 131st Legislature.
But a lot would come down to whether Collings’ amendment — and his repeated assurances that he would vote against LD 1619 — meant that the he would actually vote against the abortion bill.
That is, could a leftist Bernie Bro from Portland be trusted to keep his word?
The House bell began tolling just after 9:30 Thursday, and some Republicans mistook the somber, even teary-eyed faces of their Democrat colleagues as an indication that a surprise was in order.
Two stalwart Republicans, Rep. Kathy Javner (R-Chester) and Rep. Shelly Rudnicki (R-Fairfield), were not present for the vote because they had previously scheduled obligations based on the June 21 adjournment date. But Democratic Rep. Ann Perry of Calais also “took a walk” for the vote and several Democrats had, like Collings, indicated this would not be a standard party line vote.
That set the stage for a potential 73-73 tie.
When the vote came down to the last seconds, only two holdouts remained, the House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), and Collings.
Faulkingham cast the penultimate vote, then Collings, and a cry swept the hall: Collings had betrayed his multiple assurances to Republicans that he would vote against LD 1619.
Speaker Talbot Ross moved quickly to process the vote, but the Republican leader objected.
“The stench in this building is overwhelming,” Faulkingham seethed. “I move we adjourn.”
At that, pro-life activists who had assembled in the galley erupted in applause and were gaveled down by Talbot Ross.
What followed was a series of ultimately futile parliamentary maneuvers by Republicans to delay the proceedings.
When the dust had settled, LD 1619 was headed to the Maine Senate for a likely easy passage, setting up a signing ceremony for the governor.