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Majority of committee members back right to abortion bill in party-line vote


Majority of committee members back right to abortion bill in party-line vote

Feb 02, 2024 | 3:25 pm ET
By Emma Davis
Majority of committee members back right to abortion bill in party-line vote
During the Jan. 22 public hearing on the proposed amendment enshrining the right to an abortion in the state constitution, Mainers packed the committee room and spilled into the hallways of the State House to share their thoughts. (Emma Davis/ Maine Morning Star)

A proposal to enshrine the right to abortion in the Maine State Constitution received support from the majority of members on the Judiciary Committee on Thursday in a party-line vote. 

Six Democratic legislators voted “ought to pass,” meaning they recommend the Legislature pass the proposal. Five Republican legislators voted against passage and two members were absent, a Republican and a Democrat. They are expected to split, therefore keeping “ought to pass” as the majority report. 

The proposal from Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) outlines a constitutional amendment stating that “every person has a right to reproductive autonomy.” 

When the committee first heard the proposal on Jan. 22, Mainers packed the committee room and spilled into the hallways of the State House to share their thoughts. Testimony lasted nearly five hours, during which supporters described the measure as a means to ensure continued access to necessary healthcare and opponents characterized it as an endorsement of murder. 

Maine’s abortion laws are currently some of the least restrictive in the country, after the passage of a slate of bills last session, but those laws are subject to change depending on the political landscape, bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) said during the public hearing. 

Two dozen advocacy groups back provision to enshrine abortion in Maine Constitution

“This amendment would make it explicit that our reproductive rights are protected by the state Constitution,” Vitelli said. 

The bill would allow for limited exceptions. The government would not be able to deny or infringe on that right unless doing so is justified by “a compelling state interest and is accomplished using the least restrictive means necessary.” 

The version the committee voted “ought to pass” on Thursday includes an amendment that specifies that a state interest can only be “compelling” if it is for “the limited purpose of protecting the health of the person seeking care, is consistent with accepted clinical standards of practice and evidence-based medicine and does not infringe on that person’s autonomous decision making.”

The amendment is currently going through an internal review process, however, so a floor vote is not expected in the near future and the language eventually reported out may look a bit different.

The amendment will have to be passed by two-thirds of the Legislature this session before ultimately being decided by the voters in the November general election. This means the Democrat-led bill will need the support of some Republicans to get on the ballot. 

During discussion of the bill ahead of the committee vote, legislators raised questions about whether reproductive autonomy under the bill would include gender-affirming care. 

Office of Policy and Legal Analysis analyst Janet Stocco told the committee that she could not find any cases where a reproductive rights amendment was invoked in the context of gender-affirming care. Attorney General Aaron Frey said that type of litigation could happen, but that he and his team “could not think of the fact pattern that would apply to reproductive autonomy to the decision to access the gender-affirming care.” 

Rep. Stephen Moriarty (D-Cumberland), who voted in favor, said courts would examine legislative intent should the issue arise. 

“It is my unambiguous conclusion that this language has nothing whatsoever to do with gender-affirming healthcare,” Moriarty said. “If I were convinced otherwise by the language, I would not support the motion.”  

During the public hearing last month, committee members frequently asked those opposed to the proposal whether they thought the constitutional amendment would pass if the question went before the voters, as the voters, not the legislators, will have the ultimate say. 

Rep. Rachel Henderson (R-Rumford) and Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), who both voted against the proposal, said the process allows for legislative vetting because constitutional amendments are significant. 

“I believe firmly that my people elected me knowing what my stance was,” Henderson said, “and I have to speak for them.” 

Those who voted in favor of passage included Democratic Sens. Anne Carney of Cumberland and Donna Bailey of York, as well as Reps. Matt Moonen of Portland, Amy Kuhn of Falmouth, Stephen Moriarty of Cumberland, and Adam Lee of Auburn.

The Republican legislators who voted against the amendment are Sen. Eric Brakey of Androscoggin, Reps. Jennifer Poirier of Skowhegan, Rachel Henderson of Rumford and David Haggan of Hampden, as well as Passamaquoddy Tribe Rep. Aaron Dana.

Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) and Rep. Erin Sheehan (D-Biddeford) were absent for the vote.