Republican lawmakers are suggesting that Maine Attorney General Janet Mills resign over a bill she has pushed forward that would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform abortions.
The bill is raising the hackles of anti-abortion conservatives, but it could also bolster Mills’ image as a defender of abortion rights as she seeks the Democratic Party’s nomination to be its candidate for governor in a crowded primary field.
Mills has said the bill is about expanding access to abortion services in rural Maine, where it’s difficult for a woman to find a doctor who will perform the procedure, and was prompted by a federal lawsuit involving a northern Maine woman who was denied a five-pill abortion treatment because there was no doctor available to write the prescription for the drugs. The suit against Mill’s office and the state’s 16 district attorneys challenges Maine’s 40-year-old law that authorizes only a medical doctor to perform an abortion.
Some Republican lawmakers also have argued that Mills’ bill shouldn’t even be before the Legislature because the state constitution stipulates that the second half of any legislative session should be confined to emergency matters, state financial issues or bills that are introduced by the governor.
Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said Monday that she and other lawmakers who consider themselves “pro-life” would not have voted to allow the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell, to move forward. But lawmakers have a longstanding practice of allowing bills from the state’s constitutional offices to move ahead without the approval of the Legislature’s governing body, the Legislative Council. Espling said Mills’ bill was given a “free pass.”
The 10-member council is made up of the top party officers, including minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate, the speaker of the House and the president of the state Senate.
Espling questions how an abortion bill is germane to the Attorney General’s Office.
“In an election year it appears as though Janet Mills is, in effect, using the Office of the Attorney General to help her pander to far-left Democrat primary voters by submitting legislation that has very little to do with her department and, frankly, little chance of ever becoming law,” Espling wrote in a recent opinion column in the Press Herald.
“If she can’t compartmentalize and separate being Maine’s attorney general from being a candidate for governor, she should follow the lead of former DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who resigned to focus solely on her gubernatorial campaign.”
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU of Maine, brought the suit that challenges Maine’s 1979 law requiring that abortions be performed only by doctors in a complaint filed in September in U.S. District Court in Portland.
“My personal history is consistently pro-choice, I think everybody knows that,” Mills said in an interview Monday. “My job as attorney general is both to defend the state laws whenever they are called into question or attacked as being unconstitutional, that’s in the state law, but my job is also to pursue public policies that would further the public good for the people of Maine.”
Mills said she didn’t choose the timing of the federal lawsuit, which came after the Legislature had adjourned in 2017, and that she would have proposed a law change sooner had she been made aware of the issue.
“The allegations (in the lawsuit) raise serious public policy questions that I think can and should be addressed by lawmakers with full public input, rather than dealt with in a long, drawn-out battle in federal court,” Mills said. She noted that her office also was defending another state law in federal court that prohibits anti-abortion protesters from “yelling and screaming outside a clinic so loudly as to interfere with the provision of health care.”
Most abortions in Maine are done at three women’s health centers: Planned Parenthood in Portland and clinics in Augusta and Bangor. Overall, abortion rates have declined dramatically in the U.S. and Maine. Despite Maine’s relatively stable population, 1,836 abortions were performed in the state in 2015, compared with 2,653 in 2005, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health experts cite improved birth-control methods as one of the major factors in declining abortion rates.
“It’s about access, especially in rural areas,” Mills wrote in an email to the Press Herald responding to questions about the bill this month. “The advent of medication abortion, for instance, makes the presence of a physician generally unnecessary. Other states recognize that it is within the scope of practice of advanced nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform medical abortions, particularly in the first trimester.”
Many, including the ACLU of Maine, see the lawsuit as a first step in overturning similar laws in 41 other states that only allow doctors to perform abortions.
The bill, L.D. 1763, has not yet been referred to a legislative committee for a public hearing, but it faces a difficult path forward in a near-evenly divided Legislature. Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the Senate and Democrats hold a slight majority of 74 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at: