For years, there was a general bipartisan consensus on abortion rights in Maine: The state laws governing access to the procedure were just fine.

While a small but vocal segment of the activist base in both parties pressed for either greater access or further restrictions, most elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, were happy to leave well enough alone.

When she was running for reelection, Gov. Janet Mills seemed content to follow this bipartisan consensus, claiming that she supported leaving Maine’s as they were. This seemed to be an attempt to avoid the debate entirely, shifting attention instead to the views of her opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, who endorsed some further restrictions – though he stopped well short of supporting the measures being introduced in Republican-controlled states. This proved to be a winning strategy, though it’s debatable how much of an impact it actually had on the outcome; polls had consistently shown Mills ahead of her predecessor.

Shortly after being sworn in for a second term, though, Mills changed her position, endorsing a number of measures intended to expand access to abortion. While Mills claims to have had a legitimate change of heart, it’s hard to believe that an experienced elected official and lawyer could truly have her mind changed after the election on a dime.

Instead, it’s easier to believe that she was, in fact, always open to expanding access to abortion in Maine, and that her stance during the campaign was simply one of political convenience. After all, this is one of the major issues driving the base in both parties these days: While this position might have cost her a few votes during the election, now that she’s begun her second term, Mills has nothing to lose politically from her shift. Still, it would have been far preferable for her to be honest during the debate, just saying that she currently had no plans to change Maine’s abortion laws. That would have probably been just as safe for her politically – and it might even have had the advantage of being the truth.

Once Mills was officially on board with expanding access to abortion in Maine, the rest was just a matter of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. Yes, she had to introduce legislation or find specific bills already introduced that she would support, but once that was done, their passage was all but assured. Unfortunately, abortion – like many other areas of public policy these days – has become one drawn on a starkly partisan battlefield, where nuance is lost and neither side is even willing to entertain the idea of compromise.


Indeed, the entire legislative process became a fait accompli once Mills made her position clear. While committees had to do their work to fine-tune the language of each bill, the outcome has never been in doubt. The hours upon hours of public testimony, the dueling demonstrations all over the state, and the many letters to the editor sent to this and other papers were nothing more than political theater.

That’s a shame, because this sham process not only wastes the time and energy of the general public, activists and elected officials alike, it weakens faith in our democracy. Rather than both sides retreating to their trenches and using the issue for purely political purposes, we would all have been better served if they had done some actual governing instead. Neither party was interested in real governing when it came to this issue, though; instead, they wanted a spectacle to appease the masses.

That was made utterly clear when Mills and the other supporters of the legislation decided to hold a big press conference in the Augusta to unveil their proposals. It wasn’t always the case, but these days, when that happens in Augusta, that’s not really the beginning of the legislative process but the end: Proponents already know they either do or don’t have the votes.

Even if we can’t ultimately find bipartisan common ground on a particular issue, it’s worth following the real legislative process. We deserve to have a real debate on the important issues facing our state, not a choreographed campaign formulated behind closed doors. Public debate is an important part of the process that shouldn’t be overlooked for the sake of political convenience. If it is, we’ll continue to see what we saw with the abortion bills: staged debate that stifles real discussion. That’s not the real democratic process that the people of Maine deserve.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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