The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to force the state’s Medicaid program to pay for abortions.

The lawsuit contends that depriving women of abortion coverage violates state statute and the Maine Constitution.

The suit was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland against the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of three women’s health care providers.

Thirteen states have been forced by court order to pay for abortions for low-income women, as the ACLU of Maine is seeking, but attempts to use the courts to force public abortion funding have failed in numerous states.

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, called the lawsuit “nothing but a frivolous public relations stunt.”

“The facts of the matter are that the vast majority of states do not cover abortions with their Medicaid program, and the federal government prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions except in case of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger,” Bennett said.

Although the lawsuit doesn’t name the Republican governor as a defendant, a member of his Cabinet, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, is a defendant.

MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, costs about $2.5 billion in state and federal funds annually, $750 million of which comes from the state General Fund, said DHHS spokesman John Martins.

Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, believes the lawsuit will be successful because similar suits have succeeded in states such as Massachusetts and Vermont that have constitutions similar to Maine’s.

“We should have done this years ago,” Heiden said of Tuesday’s lawsuit. “There are too many barriers for women of low income to get the care they need.”

The ACLU of Maine sued on behalf of three nonprofits that specialize in reproductive and sexual health care – Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, Maine Family Planning and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Combined, the three provide care to 21,500 Maine residents each year, more than half of whom qualify for low-income health coverage, the groups said in a written statement announcing the lawsuit. The suit was not prompted by a specific patient.

SEVENTEEN STATES PAY FOR COVERAGE

Federal legislation that went into effect in 1977, known as the Hyde Amendment, bars federal funds from being used for abortions unless the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest or the abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. But the legislation allows states to pay for other abortions.

Four states – Hawaii, Maryland, New York and Washington – voluntarily provide abortion coverage to low-income women, and 13 states – Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia – have been ordered by state courts to fund the coverage.

The 33 other states restrict state funding for abortions.

MaineCare provides coverage to women for pregnancy-related care if they choose to carry their pregnancy to term. The lawsuit contends that since the state funds one kind of health coverage for low-income women but doesn’t provide coverage for women having legal abortions, it discriminates against women who decide to have an abortion and violates an equal protection clause in the state constitution.

“Abortion is a protected right for all women, regardless of what type of insurance they have,” Heiden said. “This lawsuit aims to right the ship and to bring DHHS policy back in line with the Maine Constitution.”

The DHHS has not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Andrea Irwin, executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth center in Bangor, said many of the organization’s patients don’t have enough money to pay for abortion care, particularly women from rural areas who must travel for health care.

“As more Maine women and families experience poverty, with fewer safety net programs to support them, the need to act has become increasingly urgent. We can no longer accept a policy that treats the rights of women in Maine according to two different standards – whether you can afford to pay for your rights or not,” Irwin said in a joint statement issued by the ACLU of Maine.

Kate Brogan, vice president of public affairs at Maine Family Planning in Augusta, said in the statement that no one should be denied access to safe health care because of their income.

“When a person needs to end a pregnancy, it is essential that professional medical care is accessible without barriers,” Brogan said.

SUPPORT FOR ENDING A ‘WRONG’

Dr. Donna Burkett, medical director at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said a woman who finds out she is pregnant should not be forced to make a decision based on finances instead of one that weighs what’s best for her, her health and her family.

“When she decides it’s better to end her pregnancy, which could be due to health concerns, she needs to be able to use her Medicaid benefits to get the care she needs,” Burkett said in the statement. “All too often, we see a woman delay her decision, potentially jeopardizing her health, because she couldn’t afford to care for herself.”

Several Democratic state legislators supported the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state.

“The current situation means that not all women have equal access to the full slate of pregnancy-related services, including abortion,” Sen. Justin Alfond, the Democratic minority leader from Portland, said in a written statement. “It’s wrong that women covered by MaineCare have fewer options than women covered by private insurance. We don’t discriminate against low-income people in Maine.”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said a woman’s decision whether to have a child should be between her and her doctor, regardless of how much money she makes.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in an email, “As legislators, we should not be blocking a woman’s access to health care as a result of her income or personal choices. All women should be guaranteed equal access to affordable health care services and the freedom to make their own choices for themselves and their families without interference.”

Republican legislative leaders declined to comment on the suit.

“It doesn’t look like a legislative matter, so we might be inclined to pass on it for now,” James Cyr, a spokesman for Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said in an email.

Rob Poindexter, a spokesman for House Republicans, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.