In Maine, the most rural state in the nation, pregnant people must sometimes travel the entire day to end a pregnancy.
A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks to increase abortion access in Maine by challenging a state law that permits only doctors to perform abortions, rather than other skilled health professionals such as nurse practitioners.
Because of the restriction, a pregnant person in the northern town of Fort Kent must travel more than six hours round trip to Bangor for an aspiration abortion before ten weeks, or any form of abortion after ten weeks, according to a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Meanwhile, a pregnant person on the island town of Vinalhaven faces a day-long journey to reach an abortion doctor in Augusta.
“Anyone who has made it through a Maine winter in a rural area knows that travel can be dangerous or impossible at times–it’s wrong to make a woman risk a journey of hundreds of miles to get an abortion when there are qualified providers nearby,” Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement.
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More than half of Maine women live in counties without a provider of abortion beyond ten weeks of pregnancy, the complaint notes. That includes Washington, Somerset, and Franklin counties, the state’s poorest counties.
But state law blocks certified nurse practitioners and certified nurse-midwives, also known as advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, from performing abortions—even though Maine considers these health professionals sufficiently skilled to deliver babies and perform certain gynecological procedures.
The plaintiffs suggest that removing the state restriction could increase the number of facilities providing abortion care from three to 18.
“Nurse practitioners and nurse-midwives are highly qualified to provide the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion care,” said George Hill, president and CEO of Maine Family Planning, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Thousands of Mainers choose these medical professionals to provide their reproductive health care, and requiring those patients to go elsewhere for a physician to end a pregnancy simply doesn’t make medical sense.”
Maine is one of 41 states that restrict abortion access by allowing only doctors to perform abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. APRNs are legally permitted to perform abortions in the neighboring states of New Hampshire and Vermont.
Major medical groups including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Public Health Association, consider laws barring APRNs from performing early abortions medically unfounded, according to a joint statement from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. A peer-reviewed study of 11,487 abortion patients published in the American Journal of Public Health in March 2013 found no significant difference in the safety of abortions performed by nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners versus physicians.