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Lethal combinations

Democrats in Maine pass dozens of bills in a legislative frenzy, expanding abortion and legalizing assisted suicide.

Lethal combinations

A new crop of Maine lawmakers is sworn in on Dec. 5, 2018, in the House Chamber of the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

In the months leading up to the frenzied conclusion of Maine’s 2019 legislative session, pro-life protesters in the state braved evening rain to call for revival, churches organized prayer chains, and dozens of citizens spoke at hearings or submitted statements to lawmakers. Despite their efforts, right-to-life advocates this spring found only disappointment from the many laws a newly Democratic Legislature passed in Maine.

Lawmakers loosened state abortion restrictions, made abortion insurance coverage mandatory, eliminated religious exemptions for vaccines, increased slot machine licenses, and passed other controversial bills. One bill regulating the sale of recreational marijuana (which Maine residents had already voted to legalize) passed in the middle of the night last week as legislators scrambled to the finish line, adjourning at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday. In the final few hours, the governor signed 78 bills.

State legislatures rarely make national news, but they can quickly generate a flood of legislation that impacts citizens’ daily lives. Teresa McCann-Tumidajski, executive director of Maine Right to Life, said the new laws will “drastically affect every person in the state of Maine.”

Recent elections flipped the state Senate and governorship out of Republican hands, giving Maine a new Democratic governor, Janet Mills, and a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, called the controversial bills a reaction to Maine’s previous Republican governor and the Trump administration.

“It really is a show of force,” Conley said. “Elections have consequences.”

While states like Mississippi tightened abortion restrictions and received a flood of media attention, Maine joined New York and others in loosening restrictions. And unlike the pro-life heartbeat bills that courts have blocked, these abortion restriction rollbacks are likely to go into effect.

Maine lawmakers voted to allow nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurse midwives to perform abortions. Another new law requires insurance, including taxpayer-funded MaineCare, to cover elective abortions as part of any maternity care policy. Still another new law allows the sale of nonprescription drugs—including emergency contraception—in vending machines.

Conley said Democrats feel threatened by efforts to reduce abortion in other states and have pushed far in the opposite direction in response. “It seems ‘safe and rare’ have kind of come off the table,” he said. “All that matters is just the legality of it.”

The Legislature legalized physician-assisted suicide by one vote. Lawmakers had defeated such a measure many times over the last 20 years. Gov. Mills signed the bill, saying she hoped it would be rarely used. (The American Medical Association continues to oppose assisted suicide on the grounds that it goes against the physician’s fundamental role as a healer.)

McCann-Tumidajski said the new law leaves patients vulnerable to coercion and capricious insurance companies. She said the new Legislature has not been fully educated about the dangers of assisted suicide, like the financial pressures it places on the low-income and disabled people facing expensive treatments. The bill’s insufficient safeguards are “a lethal combination” for Maine’s growing population of elderly residents, she said.

Other less contested bills will also impact daily life in Maine. Lawmakers this session legalized online sports betting, outlawed handheld devices behind the wheel, banned foam containers and single-use plastic bags in many stores, and expanded solar energy requirements.

Another approved measure prohibits law enforcement from investigating or detaining anyone solely for the purpose of immigration enforcement. Supporters say it will protect vulnerable immigrants. Opponents say it will cripple Maine’s ability to cooperate with federal officers.

Maine also banned gay conversion therapy for minors, though Republican House spokesman John Bott said there were no recorded instances of its use within the state. The new law bars all attempts by licensed professionals to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors. Republicans failed to pass an amendment to exclude talk therapy from the bill.

Still, pro-lifers see reasons for hope. Conley said churches united across denominational lines not only to fight the pro-abortion legislation but to support crisis pregnancy centers and homes for women and children in need. Despite a lack of national attention on Maine, McCann-Tumidajski said she received a groundswell of support from voters, more than ever before.

She said pro-life advocates are patient, persistent, and hopeful the legislation can change again. Until it does, “We will not rest.”

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton