Paul LePage struggles to answer abortion questions in debate with Maine Governor Janet Mills

During his two terms as Maine governor, Republican Paul LePage attended anti-abortion rallies, argued that “we shouldn’t have abortion” and said in 2018 that if the Supreme Court brought a case to overturn 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 answer directly when asked what he would do if the Maine legislature enacted further restrictions on abortion in the state. Several times he avoided answering questions directly, protested that it was a hypothetical question, or that he did not understand the question.

LePage’s awkward performance Tuesday highlights the position many anti-abortion Republicans find themselves in, four months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that for nearly half a century guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States. The decision has emboldened Democratic voters — and put some GOP candidates on the defensive — in a midterm election cycle that typically favors the party out of power.

On Tuesday night, a moderator first asked if Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) would support removing the “viability” restriction in Maine’s current abortion law, which allows abortion up to the point “where fetal life can be continued indefinitely outside the womb by natural or artificial life support.” After that, an abortion may only be performed 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 state law, which she said reflected Roe v. Wade.

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

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

When the moderator started asking LePage the same question, he jumped in on his own.

“I served eight years as governor of Maine. I never tried, ever, to do — even talk about the abortion law because I believe — 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 life of the mother for rape … and incest. I also believe in viability.”

Thirteen states will immediately ban abortion now that Roe v. Wade is overturned. These restrictions on reproductive rights again raise a central 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 him a bill that added further restrictions, such as reducing the period of viability to 15 weeks or requiring parental consent before a minor could obtain an abortion?

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

“And if they brought these bills to you, wouldn’t you sign them?” asked the moderator.

“That’s correct,” LePage said.

Mills interrupted, “Well, would you let it become legal without your signature?” she asked.

“I don’t know…” Le Page began.

“It’s the alternative,” Mills said. “You know that. You were governor. You know the possibilities. Would you allow it to become law without your signature?”

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

Mills paused and repeated his 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. “That’s what I would do. The law that’s in place right now, I have the exact same place that you have. And I’m going to respect the law as it is. You’re talking about a hypothetical.”

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

“If you say we’re going to remove the restriction, that makes it illegal for viability?” LePage continued. “No, I wouldn’t sign that. I would veto it. The viability is in the law now.”

After a brief pause, the moderator pointed out that LePage still had not answered the question. Would he veto any further restrictions that came his way? LePage asked for examples. The moderator delivered them once more.

“If you’re talking about, I would veto a bill that would change the viability, I would go to the doctor to tell me that,” 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.”

I understand the question,” Mills said flatly. “I would not allow such a law to enter into force. My veto can and will stand in the way of any restriction on the right to abortion.”

“When you say limitation — I do, I try to understand the issue,” LePage said.

Another 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 the viability limit, which is currently 28 weeks, now Maine’s law would say no abortions after 15 weeks — would you put down veto it?” she asked.

“Yes,” LePage finally said.

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 have generally praised the ruling’s overturning Roe, many have preferred not to focus on the issue ahead of the midterms. But it became harder for GOP candidates to avoid the topic after Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) last month introduced a bill 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 limbo. In August, Indiana passed a near-total abortion ban, the first to do so after Roe was struck down.

In August, Kansas voters rightly rejected a referendum that would have allowed state lawmakers to regulate abortion, the first time state voters had decided on such a change 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, based on the belief that abortion will help turn out Democratic voters.

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