What would normally be a routine procedural vote in the Maine Senate – the determination of what legislative committee should hold the hearing about a bill – has taken on outsized importance this week.

The reason becomes obvious when you look at the bill’s title: “An Act to License Outpatient Surgical Abortion Facilities.”

L.D. 1312 would give the state Department of Health and Human Services enhanced authority to write rules for abortion clinics that could interfere with their operation. Although no specific regulations are included in the bill, rules created by the DHHS could prevent women, especially low-income women, from ending unwanted pregnancies.

There is plenty of reason for those who support abortion rights to be concerned. National anti-abortion groups have been using state legislatures to pass laws that keep abortion legal but very difficult to get. Rules that force clinics to meet the same standards as hospitals can effectively close them.

Right now, the fight in Maine is over whether L.D. 1312 is that kind of bill.

Its sponsor, Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, insists that it is not. She says she is trying to protect women’s health by making sure that clinics that perform abortions are safe. She says that it is a health care measure that should be heard in the Committee on Health and Human Services – and allies in the Senate agreed.

The bill’s opponents in the House say that because the proposal has the potential to reduce access to abortion, it raises constitutional issues and should be considered in the Judiciary Committee.

If the House and Senate cannot agree, the bill will die between chambers. And that would be the best outcome.

A bill with the word “abortion” in the title cannot be seen as anything other than an “abortion bill,” the sponsor’s assurance notwithstanding. This bill looks like a way to sneak abortion restrictions into the law under the guise of routine regulation. This is too close to the approach used by anti-abortion lawmakers in other states to be taken at face value.

The Senate should let this bill die. If its supporters are really interested in proactive measures to protect women’s health, they have an excellent alternative available. Another bill, L.D. 319, would provide access to a variety of women’s health services – including high-quality birth control to low-income women. These are services such as IUDs and contraceptive implants that are more effective than lower-cost methods, but are difficult to afford without insurance coverage.

Passing this bill would reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, which would not only be an economic boon to those women, health care providers and the state, but would also reduce the need for abortions. Since that is a goal shared by both sides of the abortion divide, it would be a good place to find common ground.

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