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Maine GOP gubernatorial hopeful struggles with abortion questions in debate

Gubernatorial candidates Gov. Janet Mills (D) and Republican Paul LePage participate in a debate on Oct. 4 at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

During his two terms as Maine governor, Republican Paul LePage attended antiabortion rallies, argued that “we should not have abortion” and said in 2018 that if the Supreme Court were to make a case for overturning Roe v. Wade, “let’s do it.”

But on a gubernatorial debate stage Tuesday night, LePage was much more circumspect about his views on reproductive rights, struggling to respond directly when asked what he would do if the Maine legislature introduced additional restrictions to abortion in the state. Multiple times, he avoided answering questions directly, protesting that it was a hypothetical issue or that he did not understand the question.

LePage’s awkward performance Tuesday highlights the position many antiabortion Republicans are in, four months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that for nearly a half-century guaranteed the right to an abortion in the United States. The decision has galvanized Democratic voters — and put some GOP candidates on the defensive — in a midterm election cycle that would typically favor the party not in power.

On Tuesday night, a moderator first asked whether Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) would support removing the “viability” restriction in Maine’s current abortion law, which allows abortion until the point “when the life of the fetus may be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life support.” After that, an abortion may be performed only when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Mills, who has served as Maine’s governor since 2019, said she had no plans to change the state law, which she said reflected Roe v. Wade.

“I believe a woman’s right to choose is just that: It’s a woman’s right, not a politician’s and most certainly not Mr. LePage’s or anybody sitting in public office,” Mills said. “As long as I’m governor, the right to reproductive health care will never be considered dispensable. My veto pen will stand in the way of any effort to undermine, roll back or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine.”

“I have never wavered in that position, never equivocated, never flip-flopped,” she added pointedly.

As the moderator began asking LePage the same question, he jumped in on his own.

“I served eight years as the governor of Maine. Never once did I attempt, ever, to do — even talk about the abortion bill, because I believe in — the bill that’s in place right now is a good bill,” said LePage, who was governor of Maine from 2011 to 2019. “I believe in protecting the mother’s life for rape … and incest. I also believe in the viability.”

Thirteen states will immediately outlaw abortion now that Roe v. Wade is overturned. These restrictions on reproductive rights resurface a key question. (Video: Hannah Jewell, Lindsey Sitz, Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

The moderator pointed out that the question had actually been different. What would he do as governor if the state legislature were to bring a bill to him that added additional restrictions, such as reducing the viability period to 15 weeks or requiring parental consent before a minor could receive an abortion?

“I support the current law as it is,” LePage said.

“And if they brought those bills to you, you would not sign them?” the moderator asked.

“That is correct,” LePage said.

Mills interrupted: “Well, would you let it go into law without your signature?” she asked.

“I don’t know …” Le Page started.

“That’s the alternative,” Mills said. “You know that. You were governor. You know what the options are. Would you allow it to go into law without your signature?”

A visibly flustered LePage dropped his pen on the ground and then leaned over to pick it up as he shot back at Mills: “Would you allow a baby to take a breath? Would you allow the baby to take a breath …”

Mills paused and repeated her questions more slowly. “Would you let a restrictive law go into effect without your signature? Would you block a restriction on abortion?”

“Would I block? Or would-?” LePage said. “This is what I would do. The law that’s in place right now, I have the same exact place you have. And I would honor the law as it is. You’re talking about a hypothetical.”

“Oh, we’re not,” Mills replied, smiling and shaking her head.

“If you’re saying, we’re gonna take the restriction away, making it illegal for the viability?” LePage continued. “No, I would not sign that. I would veto that. The viability is in law now.”

After a brief pause, the moderator pointed out that LePage still had not answered the question. Would he veto additional restrictions that came to him? LePage asked for examples. The moderator provided them once again.

“If you’re talking about would I veto a bill that would change the viability, I would go to the medical professionals to tell me,” LePage said, shrugging. “I don’t know what you mean by 15 weeks or 28 weeks. Because I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure I understand the question.”

There was another pause.

I understand the question,” Mills said flatly. “I would not let such law become effective. My veto can and will stand in the way of any restrictions on the right to abortion.”

“When you say restriction — I’m, I’m trying to understand the question,” LePage said.

A different moderator asked the question one last time.

“So, Governor LePage, if the legislature came to you and said we want to change Maine’s law, and instead of viability which currently stands at 28 weeks, now Maine’s law is going to say no abortions after 15 weeks — would you veto that?” she asked.

“Yes,” LePage said at last.

Abortion has become a key issue in many races this November, with polls showing that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade remains unpopular. While Republicans generally have praised the ruling overturning Roe, many have preferred not to focus on the issue ahead of the midterms. But avoiding the topic became more difficult for GOP candidates after Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bill last month that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy nationwide.

Several red states already have stricter bans in place. Abortion is now banned or mostly banned in 15 states, while laws in several others are in various legal limbos. In August, Indiana passed a near-total abortion ban, the first to do so after Roe was struck down.

In August, Kansas voters soundly rejected a referendum that would have allowed state lawmakers to regulate abortion, the first time state voters had decided on such an amendment since Roe was overturned. Last month, South Carolina Republicans fell short in their bid for a near-total abortion ban in the state. Planned Parenthood recently announced that it plans to spend a record $50 million in an effort to elect abortion rights supporters across the country in November, banking on the belief that abortion will help turn out Democratic voters.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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