A proposal to expand access tonarrowly passed Thursday night in the Maine House, clearing the first hurdle after lawmakers kicked off an emotional floor debate.
The 74-72 vote was closer than expected after at least one Democratic co-sponsor had a change of heart, joining lawmakers opposed to the proposal that would give the state one of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country.
The bill moves next to the Maine Senate for consideration.
The bill introduced by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills with the backing of legislative leaders would allow abortions any time before birth if deemed necessary by a medical provider. Current state law bans abortions after a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, at roughly 24 weeks, unless a mother’s life is at risk.
House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham expressed frustration after the vote.
“The stench in this building is overwhelming,” the Republican from Winter Harbor said.
Passage is considered a foregone conclusion in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The bill had 76 sponsor and co-sponsors in the House. The vote was cast following the late arrival of a Democratic lawmaker.
One of the co-sponsors, Rep. Walter Wiseman, D-Harrison, said he decided the current state law is “doing its job.”
“Let’s stop now before we get in too deep,” he said.
The bill is one of several abortion-related bills before lawmakers this session. The debate began days before the one-year anniversary of the, returning authority over abortion to states.
Since then, many states have passed laws limiting circumstances under which women can have abortions, in some cases severely.
Rep. Erin Sheehan, a Biddeford, Maine Democrat, said the issue is best left to those who have become pregnant and their medical providers.
“Medical professionals are best positioned to make the decisions to help Mainers make the decisions that will serve them and maintain the ethical guardrails needed in the later stages of pregnancy,” Sheehan said.
But Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said the proposal was extreme and out of touch with Mainers who support the current law. “We all know that this bill goes too far,” she said.
Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, who supports the bill, was one of the lawmakers to put it in personal terms, noting that her mother didn’t have a choice when she gave birth to a baby with a fatal anomaly and watched her newborn son die over the course of a day.
Madigan said lawmakers have no business stepping into such tragedies. “If you’ve never had to be in those circumstances, be grateful,” she said.
The debate was respectful, but tense at times.
Rep. Adam Lee, D-Auburn, said many Democrats were demonized by abortion opponents for supporting the bill. But he said the decision was difficult for lawmakers on both sides of the issue.
“We need to realize that we aren’t bad people. Neither side. This is a tough decision for all of us,” Lee said.