The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade effectively made abortion legal in the United States, but it didn’t make abortion accessible. For residents of rural Maine, a state law that allows only doctors to perform abortions is a major roadblock to exercising the constitutional right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy. If this right is to mean anything, the federal government should throw out Maine’s outdated statute.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the American Civil Liberties Union filed their case Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Portland, but the outcome of the suit will be closely watched nationwide. Forty other states also have physician-only statutes; if the Maine case succeeds, it could set a precedent around the country and help alleviate the shortage of professionals trained to perform these necessary and legal services.

Under the Maine statute, which dates to 1979, anyone other than a licensed medical doctor or osteopath could face criminal charges for performing an abortion. Although it’s not clear whether there ever have been any such prosecutions, the law has had a punitive impact – on the 61 percent of Mainers who live in rural areas.

Planned Parenthood in Portland, Mabel Wadsworth Health Center in Bangor and Maine Family Planning’s Augusta headquarters perform about 90 percent of all abortions in Maine. (Removing the physician-only restriction could increase the number of facilities providing abortion care here from three to 18.)

A northern Maine resident who’s seeking an abortion would have to make a six-hour round trip to Bangor for the procedure. Someone from Skowhegan, Farmington or Belfast would have to drive an hour each way to Augusta. A person who lives on Vinalhaven faces at least a day’s journey to get to Augusta and back for abortion services. Factor in transportation, lost wages and child care expenses, and the practical barrier of geography blocks access to abortion as effectively as any legal limit.

The physician-only law is not only unfair but also unneeded. Science doesn’t support it. Peer-reviewed research – including, most recently, a 2013 study of more than 11,000 patients in California, conducted over four years – found there’s no difference in complication rates for abortions performed by nurse-midwives or nurse practitioners and those done by physicians. The World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all support allowing advanced practice registered nurses to perform abortions at early stages of pregnancy.

This restriction is a baffling anomaly in an otherwise pro-choice state. Maine law generally comes down on the side of the patient and their right to a safe, legal abortion, and we hope that the federal court recognizes that and strikes down this burdensome statute.

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