Maine Democrats who expanded abortion access now want to amend the state constitution

Jan 22, 2024, 10:13 AM

Democratic Maine Sen. Eloise Vitelli, sponsor of a proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to ensh...

Democratic Maine Sen. Eloise Vitelli, sponsor of a proposal to amend the Maine Constitution to enshrine the right to an abortion, addresses supporters in the Hall of Flags at the Maine State House on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/David Sharp)

(AP Photo/David Sharp)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine Gov. Janet Mills and other leading Democrats are pressing to end future legislative debate over abortions by amending the state constitution to enshrine the right to reproductive health care, just seven months after expanding access to abortions.

Maine is seeking to join four other states that have amended their constitutions to protect the right to abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

But the proposal faces another tough, passionate battle after a closer-than-expected outcome last year in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which voted along party lines to give Maine one of the nation’s least restrictive abortion laws.

Amendment supporters say Mainers should have the final say, but it would take a two-thirds vote in each chamber to advance the amendment to a statewide vote at a time when many Republicans are still angry over last year’s loss.

“There’s no way it’s going to pass,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Keim, of Dixfield. “They shouldn’t be putting this political theater on stage again.”

On Monday, the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the governor lent her support to amending the Maine Constitution, saying the state must act to ensure the right to reproductive health care, regardless of which party is in control.

“No matter how strong our laws may be, they are subject to everchanging political tides and can be repealed. That is why, without any such federal protection, it is critical that Maine people be assured that reproductive autonomy be protected to the greatest extent possible in the state — through an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Maine,” she wrote in testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

Maine is one of more than a dozen other states that are considering ballot measures dealing with abortion for this year or in 2026. Most, in places including Arizona and Florida, would seek to ensure access, though in varying degrees. In Colorado, there are dueling efforts to get restrictions and access on the ballot.

Abortion questions have appeared on statewide ballots seven times since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended a nationwide right to abortion in 2022. In each case, the side backed by abortion-right advocates prevailed — even in conservative states such as Kansas and Kentucky and swing states such as Michigan and Ohio.

Measures to enshrine the right to abortion are already on the ballots for November 2024 in Maryland and New York. Like Maine’s proposal, they don’t use the word “abortion,” but rather refer to “reproductive autonomy” or “reproductive freedom.”

On Monday, the sponsor of the proposal in Maine, Sen. Eloise Vitelli, of Arrowsic, warned that Maine isn’t immune to efforts to restrict abortions, noting there have been more than two dozen proposals in recent years in the Legislature,

“As we are seeing so clearly in state after state across this nation, laws can and do change,” Vitelli told supporters of her proposal Monday.

That’s why it’s important, supporters said, for Maine to join California, Vermont, Ohio and Michigan, states that have made reproductive freedom explicit in the state constitutions after the U.S. Supreme Court action.

About 100 people supporting the proposal rallied in the State House, along with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Senate President Troy Jackson and others, but the tone was different from last year, when larger, boisterous crowds gathered in the halls.

Lisa Kushner, of Belfast, described her harrowing experience of entering a darkened building from an alley entrance to get an abortion in 1966, and she said lawmakers and the people of Maine should take additional steps to ensure that never happens again.

“Personal reproductive decisions have no place in state legislatures. Our elected representatives should never be orchestrating constituents’ reproductive lives,” she said. “Mainers deserve a right to vote and settle this issue,” she added.

The amendment follows a new law that allows abortions at any time if deemed medically necessary by a doctor. Maine’s previous law, adopted in 1993, made abortions legal until a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, at roughly 24 weeks.

The emotional debate included a public hearing that lasted 19 hours, driven mostly by a massive turnout by voters opposed to the proposal.

The bill was narrowly approved in the Maine House, passing 74-72, after the chamber took an hourslong break and the vote was held open for about 45 minutes.

Enraged Republicans accused Democrats of political shenanigans, but there were only a handful of abortion opponents present Monday. Keim said she didn’t encourage those opposed to the amendment to come to the State House in a show of force, calling it a waste of their time, given the significant hurdles to passage.

Several teenagers were among those who quietly held signs in opposition to the amendment.

Kristina Parker, an 18-year-old activist, said many Mainers share her view that abortion is wrong. “This is a constitutional amendment proposal to make personal reproductive autonomy a right, except I don’t think anyone has a right to kill anybody,” she said.


Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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Maine Democrats who expanded abortion access now want to amend the state constitution