Maine’s New All-Nine-Month Abortion Law Won’t Be Challenged in Referendum

In light of the current political landscape, pro-lifers are looking to state legislature races in 2024 instead.

Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, shown in 2018 speaking supporters on election night, signed into law July 19 a new bill that allows abortions after 24 weeks if a doctor deems them necessary.
Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, shown in 2018 speaking supporters on election night, signed into law July 19 a new bill that allows abortions after 24 weeks if a doctor deems them necessary. (photo: Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Maine pro-lifers have opted not to bring a referendum to the state’s voters next year to try to flip a new state law that allows abortions after 24 weeks if a doctor deems them necessary.

Opponents of the new law looked hard at pursuing what the state calls a “people’s veto,” but decided against it.

“National Right to Life has looked across the entire country at what happens with citizens’ initiatives, and pro-life loses almost every single time. And here’s what happens: We’re David fighting Goliath. We do not have the money and the resources to fight against Planned Parenthood,” said Karen Vachon, executive director of Maine Right to Life, a state affiliate of the national organization, in a telephone interview Wednesday night, which was the deadline day to decide

The risk isn’t worth the reward, and the reward could be fleeting, another pro-life advocate told the Register, since the abortion-friendly state Legislature could flip the referendum result even if pro-lifers won.

“If we lost the effort — if we got the signatures and lost — we were gravely worried about the impact on the state long term,” said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, by telephone.

New Law’s Abortion Expansion

The new law states, “After viability an abortion may be performed only when it is necessary in the professional judgment of a physician …” Existing state law defines “viability” as the point when an unborn child can live “indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life-support systems,” which is usually defined as 24 weeks.

Supporters of the new law say it’s designed to allow women who find out late in their pregnancy that their child has a fatal condition that will result in death to have an abortion instead of giving birth.

The office of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who signed the new abortion bill into law July 19, said the bill “puts the decision about whether to have an abortion later in pregnancy in the hands of women and their doctors — not politicians or lawyers, ensuring that patients can get care they need, when they need it.”

“Maine law should recognize that every pregnancy, like every woman, is different, and that politicians cannot and should not try to legislate the wide variety of difficult circumstances pregnant women face. Instead, we should recognize the complexity of pregnancy and, like every other health care procedure, take government out of the decision-making process and put the doctor and patient in charge,” Mills said in a written statement.

But pro-lifers note that the new law doesn’t mention fatal fetal anomalies as a necessary legal justification for late-term abortions, therefore allowing doctors to approve them for any reason, and they say the bill makes Maine’s already-regrettable abortion-friendly policy worse.

“This is immoral,” said Bishop Robert Deeley of the Diocese of Portland, which covers the entire state, in a written statement the day the Maine House passed the bill in June. “This is not a fetus. It is an unborn child with everything ready for birth. That is not an issue between a woman and her medical provider. It is a woman, her medical provider, and an unborn child. This measure eliminates any protections for children who cannot speak for themselves but will suffer because of it.”

The new law makes Maine one of the most abortion-friendly states in the country.

“It’s barbaric, it’s extreme, it’s one of the worst in the country and in all of the world,” Vachon told the Register.

The key vote was June 23, when the Maine House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 74-72 — meaning that if one state representative had voted No instead of Yes, the measure would have died.

All 66 Republicans who voted went against it, as did five Democrats and one Independent. (Three Democrats and two Republicans were absent.)

Suzanne Lafreniere, who represents the bishop on political matters as head of the diocese’s Office of Public Policy, told the Register she is particularly impressed by the Democrats who voted No, because they were under a lot of pressure to vote Yes.

“They didn’t buckle. I’m incredibly grateful to them. We need more of them,” Lafreniere said.

Pro-Lifers Losing State Referendums

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022 and returned abortion law to the states, pro-lifers have lost state abortion referendums in the left-leaning states of California and Vermont, but also in tossup and right-leaning states, including Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, and Michigan. In Ohio, which has been trending conservative, a referendum question designed to make it harder to amend the state’s constitution lost Tuesday, Aug. 8, making it more likely a pro-abortion referendum will pass in November.

Abortion supporters say they win because most people support legal abortion. Pro-lifers say it’s because abortion supporters outspend them in political campaigns and drive the narrative with the help of sympathetic mainstream media.

“I think the reason is the average person isn’t presented with the truth. Our opponents unfortunately have everything but the truth on their side,” Lafreniere said.

Focus On 2024

Conley said all pro-life leaders in Maine agreed on not pursuing a referendum to try to overturn the state’s new abortion law, though some grassroots pro-lifers wanted to go ahead with it.

“We certainly respect and understand the passion of wanting to pursue the people’s veto,” Conley said. “Sometimes part of leadership is making incredibly difficult decisions.”

Instead, the focus is on electing more abortion opponents to the Maine Legislature in 2024.

“What we need to do is get more pro-life lawmakers elected. And the truth is, if we had a few more, we would have stopped this,” Vachon said.

“Hopefully, the constituents will notice, stand up, and change the Legislature in Augusta,” Lafreniere said, referring to the state capital. “Because it’s truly the case that the Legislature did not represent what the average Mainer would want in passing this legislation.”

The recent campaign against the new abortion law included significant outreach to evangelical Protestant churches in Maine. Conley, an evangelical, said he has not seen the pro-life movement in the state this energized since he started leading the Christian Civic League of Maine about 13 years ago.

Vachon, a Catholic, told the Register building up churches is key to building up pro-life support.

Vachon said, “How do we get churches more relevant, and get them to seek solace, seek support, and get them to come to church? That’s what we need to work on.”

Matthew McDonald is a Register staff reporter and the editor of New Boston Post.