From Trepidation to Affirmation — The 125th Legislature & Reproductive Rights

As the current session of the Maine Legislature winds down, I’ve been reflecting on the recent challenges the FPA faced to our mission to ensure that all Maine people have access to reproductive health care and the right to control their reproductive lives.

After last November’s election, it was clear that a major change had taken place. Not only in Maine, but throughout the country, a more conservative mood prevailed among voters.  For the first time since 1974, both houses of the Maine Legislature were going to be Republican lead and there were many new legislators whose stance on reproductive rights was unknown to us.   The election of an anti-choice governor caused jubilation among anti-choice activists.

What, I wondered, did this mean for family planning and abortion care in our state? 

Here at the FPA, we braced ourselves for a potential onslaught of anti-family planning, anti-choice bills and a challenge to state funding for family planning services.

By the bill submission deadline, just as we expected, there were several bills — five of them, actually — that would have limited health care privacy and access to reproductive health care services for Maine women and teens. In addition, the governor’s proposed budget called for a 50% cut in state funding for family planning.

Actually — the bills to limit minors’ access to birth control and abortion care, to mandate a 24-hour waiting period and scripted counseling for women seeking abortions and to create a new class of crime for harm to a fetus — are nothing new. Nearly identical bills were proposed six years ago, during a time when Democrats held the majority in both the House and the Senate.  At that time, every single bill was rejected by the Maine Legislature. This time around, many people feared that a Republican-controlled legislature would pass these bills into Maine law. Clearly, we had work to do.

Throughout the legislative session, we provided factual information about each bill and tools for taking action against them, hoping to motivate Mainers who support access to family planning and abortion care.  Time and again, we activated our Action Alert Network.  And, wow, did people ever respond!  Calling and emailing their legislators, testifying at hearings, standing with us at press conferences — the people of Maine expressed their firm commitment to reproductive rights and health care privacy.

Among those who testified was Nicola Wells, Co-Director of the League of Young Voters, who spoke eloquently about how these bills stigmatize women.

The end result?  Every one of these bills went down in defeat, with both Republicans and Democrats voting against their passage. Many legislators felt that existing Maine laws — crafted with solid bipartisan support — adequately addressed reproductive health care in the state. Several legislators expressed concern that the proposed bills represented undue government intrusion into the private lives of Maine’s citizens.

At a time when many other states have passed new laws that roll back abortion rights, Maine is one of the few states to reject proposed anti-abortion bills put forth by the legislature. It’s clear that how a legislator will vote cannot always be predicted by the side of the aisle on which s/he sits.

Why has the result in Maine been so different from that of other states? I believe it’s because Maine has a solid history of support for reproductive rights combined with a belief in limited government intrusion into the lives of private citizens.  Mainers have a strong tradition of supporting each other, of reserving judgment, of respecting differences. And that’s a powerful tradition transcending the divisions of political party.

At least that’s my take on the issue. What do you think?  Why has Maine been able to uphold reproductive access and rights at a time when so many other states haven’t?

~ Nancy

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