Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate mobilized activists for months ahead of the legislative votes in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The roll-call vote bell had been ringing for a half hour, but Rep. Ben Collings had yet to push his button.

The fate of Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to expand abortion access to later in pregnancy hung in the balance. The 47-year-old Portland Democrat with a near-perfect rating from Planned Parenthood would be the deciding vote. It should have been a gimme, but it wasn’t.

Collings wanted to push the green button to help the dozen Maine families who each year receive a fatal fetal diagnosis in the second or third trimester. But he thought the language was too vague. He feared that it could open the door to abortions that were not medically necessary.

“I was very sympathetic and wanted to support any woman in such a tragic situation to receive the care they need right here in Maine,” Collings said. “I read the language and found it to be much more broad than what I believed the proposed change to be.”

Collings believes in the separation of church and state, but he grew up Catholic in Fort Kent, in the far northern reaches of The County. Collings is proud of his roots and would one day like to return. St. John Valley leans Democratic but is conservative on social issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I felt uncomfortable with the language that didn’t include ‘medically necessary’ after viability,” Collings said. “A great majority of Americans and people here in Maine share my sentiment. …  Leaving the option after viability for any other reasons is a great concern for most people.”


He’d hoped someone would amend the bill to limit its scope. Many people talked about it, but Mills had resisted such a limitation, saying it should be up to a woman and her physician to decide when a later-in-pregnancy abortion was necessary, not lawmakers. The House was divided.

So Collings filed his own amendment that day to limit the scope to fatal fetal diagnoses and rape cases. Democratic leaders were upset by Collings’ curveball. He’d lobbied lawmakers throughout the day, and during a 4-1/2 hour evening break, but his political instincts told him he might be too late.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, made a first call for absentees, then a second. She looked at Collings, her longtime ally. Talbot Ross had introduced the bill for Mills and testified on its behalf. As Speaker, she runs the House. If the bill met with defeat here, it would not look good for her.

Talbot Ross sternly told the chamber: “There is one member who has not voted.”

It was time, Collings knew. Red or green. Vote yes on imperfect legislation he thought the House was pushing through in haste and hope his amendment would pass or vote no and risk alienating the very Democrats he would need to support his amendment.

Collings decided that he couldn’t vote against the bill; he had to roll the dice.


A few lawmakers who are skilled at reading tally board code gasped when Collings’ light turned green.

Talbot Ross closed the vote, the House clerk tallied the total, 74-72, and L.D. 1619 had landed its first, and what is likely to be its narrowest, legislative victory. It would go on to win an easy first vote in the Senate and a close but still successful second enactment vote in the House.

“I know I could have done better,” Collings said. “I acted at the last minute because I realized nobody else went ahead with an amendment and I felt strongly that even if rushed without the best protocol, it was better than not trying at all.”

State Rep. Benjamin Collings, Democrat of Portland, in May. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In April, the bill’s prospects were bright, with enough House and Senate co-sponsors to assure passage on the day it was introduced. But that was before anti-abortion activists packed a 19-hour public hearing, launched a robust “lobby your lawmaker” campaign, and filed the State House chanting “kill the bill.”

Under current Maine law, abortions are legal for any reason up to the point of viability, when the fetus is able to survive outside the womb. After viability, which is generally considered to be around 24 weeks of pregnancy, abortions are allowed only when the mother’s health or life is at risk.

Under Mills’ proposal, a licensed doctor could approve a post-viability abortion if they deem it necessary, using their professional judgment and applying the “standard of care.” That same standard is used when the courts and licensing boards dole out malpractice awards or discipline.


Opponents worry the bill makes it possible for a doctor to allow post-viability abortions for any reason. If Democrats want to allow abortions after 24 weeks for fatal fetal diagnoses, they should rewrite the bill to say that, to specify the abortion as “medically necessary,” opponents say.

The robust opposition campaign and the “medically necessary” argument caused several bill cosponsors, like Rep. Walt Riseman, I-Harrison, and Kevin O’Connell, D-Brewer, to blink. Riseman announced his defection on the House floor during the first debate.

“The law that is in effect right now is very … effective,” he said. “Let’s stop now before we get in too deep.”

O’Connell, the two-time mayor of Brewer, gave no floor speech. Instead, the utility lineman listened to the advice of his predecessor, Rep. Archie Verow, who told him his one job was to take care of his constituents, who expressed their overwhelming opposition through more than 200 phone calls.

“I did what Archie told me,” O’Connell said. “I looked after my constituents.”

Demonstrators opposed to a bill to expand abortion access gather in the halls of the Maine State House on June 27. David Sharp/Associated Press

If they couldn’t count on all the cosponsors to vote their way, Democrats were even less sure of the D’s who hadn’t put their name to the bill. A few of them were hard no’s, like anti-abortion Democrat Bruce White of Waterville. Some, like Ron Russell of Verona Island, were more of a question mark.


Last fall, in his first candidate debate, Russell said people deserve the right to choose reproductive health care without government interference. But he also said Maine’s abortion law should remain unchanged. He was also unsure about whether to vote his conscience or do the bidding of constituents.

“When I walked down that gauntlet these last two months, I had to stop every day because these people were my neighbors, friends, all so passionate about this bill,” Russell said, his voice breaking. “I didn’t want to come to Augusta with a personal agenda. I wanted to represent everybody. I tried to do my best.”

A few wobbly Democrats hoped to skip the vote – or “take a walk,” as they like to say in Augusta – because they didn’t want to vote for a bill they didn’t like, or that would anger their constituents back home, but they didn’t want to betray their party, either.

Rep. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, had run for office as an abortion rights defender and voted for other pro-access bills this session, but wouldn’t co-sponsor. Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, a nurse practitioner with a perfect rating from Planned Parenthood, wouldn’t co-sponsor, either.

About a dozen speakers into a contentious floor debate, Collings rose and asked Talbot Ross to table the bill. He gave no reason at the time, but later he said that he wanted to lobby for his amendment. Talbot Ross declared a 30-minute break. Republicans thought they had the votes to sink the bill.

Republicans caucused in Legislative Council chambers nervous but excited. They talked about Collings’ amendment, which wasn’t a win but was better than nothing. They gulped down pizza, expecting the bell to call them back into session at any minute. A few went to the outdoor balcony to get some fresh air.


Downstairs, Democrats caucused in Room 127, where the Tax Committee usually meets. They ordered Olive Garden. Party leaders talked about strategy, but they also lobbied wavering lawmakers. Just after 7 p.m., Majority Leader Mo Terry, D-Gorham, put out the call for Democratic votes.

She texted Rep. Holly Eaton, D-Deer Isle. The first-term lawmaker planned to vote for the bill, but she could not find anyone to watch her two young sons, ages 4 and 7, on Thursday. Terry told Eaton to load the kids in the car because they needed her vote. “Absolutely, we will be there in two hours,” Eaton said.

Members of the House of Representatives look up to monitor the screen during voting. Ashley Allen/Kennebec Journal

Democratic leaders thought Eaton’s arrival would give them the win, but another Democrat, Michel Lajoie of Lewiston, hobbled into the House chamber as the bell called lawmakers back. He had been excused from voting because of a broken leg, but he came back to vote against the abortion bill.

After a handful of other speeches, Talbot Ross called the House’s first major vote on the bill – to accept the majority ought-to-pass report of the Judiciary Committee – at about 10:15 p.m. All eyes turned to the electronic tally boards that record the 151 House votes as they are cast.

Abdi and Perry were no-shows, even though they had voted on other bills that afternoon.

Russell voted yes despite his debate pledge to leave Maine’s abortion law alone. He gave no floor speech, but in a follow-up interview, he said that he had too much faith in women and the medical profession, of which his father was a longtime member, to vote against an abortion bill.


“I don’t want to be naive and say there can’t be bad physicians, but I have faith in that code,” he said.

He worried he might be the deciding vote, but he soon realized that dubious distinction would belong to Collings, the last green light to pop up on the tally board. “I felt bad for Ben,” Russell said. “Just sat there all night, the chamber’s loneliest man.”

After the vote closed, Collings would try to introduce his amendment, but Democrats shot it down. The Senate engrossed Mills’ proposal five days later with a 21-13 vote. Democrats there hold a much bigger majority and everyone in the caucus ran on a pro-abortion rights campaign.

House Republicans had one last chance to sink the bill last week but failed again in a 73-69 vote. The Democrats increased their margin of victory because of an uptick in opponent absences, even though Collings sat the vote out and Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, had switched allegiance without comment.

Neither Talbot Ross nor Mills’ offices responded to repeated questions about the bill’s legislative path.

The bill must still survive a final enactment vote in the Senate before it can head to Mills, who will surely sign her own bill. Given its comfortable margin of victory in its first round of Senate votes, however, that vote, likely to come Thursday, is considered perfunctory, even by bill opponents.

Those opponents, such as Speak up for Life, an organization formed by Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, and Civic Christian League of Maine, one of Maine’s most influential anti-abortion groups, are weighing the idea of pursuing a people’s veto referendum. Libby is telling supporters that she hasn’t given up.

Civic League director Carroll Conley told supporters: “The church has been stirred.”

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