PORTLAND, Maine — The American Civil Liberties Union and a group of abortion providers argued on Monday that a federal court should allow a trial on whether to strike down a 40-year-old Maine law that prevents non-doctors from performing abortions.
The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Maine Family Planning and four clinicians brought their case to U.S. District Court in Portland, where a judge is expected to make a ruling in the coming weeks about whether to let the case go forward. Attorneys for the state of Maine have requested a summary judgment to dismiss the case. If it were instead to go forward and the rule were struck down, that could ultimately expand access to abortion in the rural state by allowing physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives to perform them.
Dozens of states have restrictions that limit the performance of abortions to doctors, and some of those have been challenged. ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said he hopes the case provides a precedent for other states.
ACLU attorney Julia Kaye told Judge Nancy Torresen the state's restrictions force women who are seeking abortions in Maine to travel long distances, and some are unable to access abortions at all.
"These are burdens being imposed by the state for no articulable reason," Kaye said. "When you're asking poor and low income women to travel hundreds of miles, sometimes on a very time-sensitive basis, some women won't be able to do that."
Chris Taub, assistant attorney general for Maine, argued that there isn't strong enough evidence showing how many women have to travel long distances. He added that fewer abortions are being performed in the state compared to the 1980s and '90s because demand is down, and not because of state laws.
"We have vague evidence that because of the physician-only law, some women have to travel far distances," he said. "We don't have any evidence of the percentage of women who face these kinds of burdens."
The court case is playing out while recently elected Gov. Janet Mills, a former Maine attorney general, is also hoping to expand the state's list of abortion providers. Mills, a Democrat, has proposed a bill that would also allow nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse-midwives to perform abortions.
Despite Mills' bill, the ACLU is moving forward with its lawsuit because it believes the current rules are unconstitutional and should be addressed by a federal court, said Heiden, of the ACLU of Maine.
It is not clear when Torresen will issue a ruling about the state's request for summary judgment. The arguments about the judgment were wrapped up by late morning.