AUGUSTA — At a packed public hearing Wednesday, dozens of supporters and opponents of legal abortion debated a bill that would require abortion be covered by Medicaid and require private insurance to cover abortion services.

Opponents testified before the Legislature’s Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee that abortion is morally objectionable and that tax funds should not be used to pay for abortion services.

Proponents argued that providing abortion as a Medicaid benefit would open up access for low-income women who desire an abortion but cannot receive the service because of the cost. An abortion typically costs about $500, but if there are medical complications costs could rise to $10,000 or higher, according to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. About 270,000 Mainers have Medicaid insurance. About 2,000 Maine women per year have abortions, according to state statistics.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services supports the bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jay McCreight of Harpswell and co-sponsored by about 80 other Democratic or independent lawmakers. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is a proponent of expanding abortion services. Mills also recently proposed allowing nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions.

If approved, Maine would join 15 states where abortion is a covered benefit under Medicaid, including the New England states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. Federal law prohibits federal funds from paying for abortion services, but states are allowed to pick up the costs. Medicaid is a blended federal-state program. The cost of the bill has yet to be determined.

Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services in Maine, said most insurance plans cover abortion, but some do not.  The bill would mandate insurance companies cover abortion, but exempts religious organizations and religious-based private schools.

Mindy Woerter, 34, of Durham said she became pregnant in 2016 but had to end the pregnancy because the fetus had a “rare and lethal anomaly that was incompatible with life.”

“The doctor said that continuing the pregnancy could put my health at risk,” Woerter said. “The choice was both excruciatingly hard and heartbreakingly easy. I knew emotionally I couldn’t continue the pregnancy wondering if today would be the day it would end, or worrying that a complication would put me in the hospital.”

Woerter said her insurance company denied coverage  and her family was billed $6,000. They appealed twice, and were denied, but unexpectedly the insurance company reversed course months later and paid the bill. She said they were fortunate that even if they had been stuck with the bill they could have afforded to pay it, but many families are not as well-off financially.

But Rep. Abigail Griffin, R-Levant, said she opposes abortion on ethical grounds, and urged the committee to recommend against it.

“I strongly oppose abortion, and I do not want my tax dollars paying for it,” Griffin said.

Another critic, Rep. Phil Curtis, R-Madison, said the bill would result in an expansion of abortion, which he opposes.

“Life is a precious gift and must be protected at all costs, from conception to the grave,” Curtis said.

Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, asserted that many small business owners are pro-life, and that some would drop insurance coverage for employees rather than be forced to offer plans that cover abortion.

“It will have the negative impact of lowering the number of people who are privately insured in Maine,” Guerin said.

But Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, argued that access to abortion services is limited for low-income and minority women.

“Family planning should not be reserved for those who can pay for it,” Talbot Ross said.

Woerter said her abortion service was health care.

“It was every bit as vital a health care service as my fertility treatments, my C-section to deliver my first baby, the appointments following my miscarriage and the delivery of my second baby,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph