Democratic Gov. Janet Mills looks Tuesday night at her opponents, former Republican Gov. Paul Lepage, center, and Independent Sam Hunkler, at the Maine Public gubernatorial debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage clashed over abortion during the first gubernatorial debate Tuesday night, and after some evasion and a little heated back-and-forth, both candidates said they would veto any attempt to change Maine’s existing abortion law.

The end result likely disappointed groups on both sides of the abortion debate.

The drama started when LePage, an anti-abortion Republican who has cut funding to family planning groups and attended anti-abortion rallies in the past, tried to dodge a question about what he would do to stop attempts to weaken Maine’s abortion law.

Heading into the debate, LePage has said he has no plans to change the law. He says he didn’t try to change it when he was in office before, and wouldn’t if reelected to a third nonconsecutive term. He says he doesn’t have time for abortion, and neither do Maine voters.

“Governor Mills has been spending millions of dollars telling Maine people I would change the law,” LePage said, referring to a barrage of political ads that have recently hit Maine airwaves attacking LePage’s position on abortion. “I support the current law as it is.”

Under current law, abortion is legal until a fetus can survive outside of the womb, generally at 24 to 28 weeks. The only time an abortion can be legally performed after that time is if a medical professional determines the pregnancy puts the mother’s life is at risk.


LePage was asked if he would sign a bill weakening the abortion law if Republicans were to win control of the Maine Legislature. He said no. At that point, Mills, a longtime lawyer, sensed an opening. She turned to LePage and pounced.

“Would you let it go into law without your signature?” Mills asked.

“I don’t know,” LePage said. “That’s a hypothetical.”

“That is the alternative, Mr. LePage,” Mills said, pointing at him. “You know that, you were governor.”

She pressed: “Would you block a restriction on abortion?”

“Would you allow a baby to take a breath?” LePage shot back.


LePage was referring to reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood that want the governors of states where abortion is legal to extend the window for legal abortions, not shorten them. He insisted his position on abortion was the same as hers.

“I am in the same exact place as you,” LePage said. “I would honor the law as it is.”

Former Gov. Paul LePage answers a question on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When pressed to say if he would block bills that would limit access to abortion in Maine, whether it be by shortening the legal time frame in which one could be obtained or by requiring parental consent for a minor, LePage said he didn’t understand the question.

“I understand the question,” Mills said.


LePage then was asked if he would allow a state bill that would make abortions illegal after 15 weeks. That is the abortion restriction being proposed in new legislation by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as well as several states, in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade.


“No, I would veto that,” LePage said.

Abortion rights supporters were skeptical of LePage’s response. Nicole Clegg, Planned Parenthood’s senior vice president of public affairs, said LePage has an eight-year record of working to restrict access to abortion and reproductive services in Maine.

“Trust has to be earned, and Paul LePage hasn’t earned it,” Clegg said. “He just hasn’t.”

On Tuesday, a LePage campaign spokesman shrugged off the debate exchange. “Janet Mills keeps lying about our position on abortion,” said Joe Turcotte. “We both intend to keep Maine’s 1993 law. The only difference is she’s playing politics with it.”

Independent candidate Sam Hunkler, a physician from Beals, said he would never do anything to endanger the life of a mother, while also saying he’d likely support any abortion law that reached his desk with two-thirds support of the Legislature, the threshold needed to overturn a veto.

Abortion opponents who have hoped LePage would seize on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling sending abortion back to the states to decide might have been disappointed that he didn’t come out in support of a 15-week ban. The Maine Republican Party platform opposes abortion.


But abortion right supporters want more from Mills, too.

Clegg would like to see Maine’s current abortion law expanded to allow for abortions to occur after the viability has closed in cases of rape or incest, or when medical tests reveal a fetal anomaly likely to result in the baby’s painful death shortly after birth.

The discovery of a fetal anomaly is the most common reason for a woman to seek an abortion after the 24-week window has closed, Clegg said. They must now travel out of state to end a pregnancy that a doctor has told them would end in tragedy, she said.


When asked at the debate if she would remove the state viability restriction, Mills emphasized her support for a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortion in Maine. She noted she had expanded access since taking office by requiring state-funded healthcare to cover abortion care.

Gov. Janet Mills answers a question on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When pressed, however, Mills said she would keep the current law as is. She never mentioned in her response cases of rape, incest and fetal anomaly, the post-viability exemptions left out of Maine’s current abortion law.

Heading into the debate, Mills had staked out a position as an ardent defender of a woman’s right to a legal abortion. In her first term, Mills required major private insurers and MaineCare, the state-funded insurance, to cover abortion. She vowed to continue this coverage if reelected.

LePage has steadfastly opposed the use of state taxpayer money to fund abortion care.

Hunkler staked out some middle ground regarding use of MaineCare funding for abortions and reproductive health care. Such funding, he said, should only be used when the mother’s health is endangered.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.