AUGUSTA — Hundreds of people formed a circle Saturday afternoon around the State House, holding hands if they could reach each other, to mourn the anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning abortions.
As the roughly 200 protesters surrounded the State House, the Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Waterville, slowly struck the Liberty Bell replica with a rubber mallet 41 times — one for every year since the court decision — while 41 red roses were placed on the ground by the memorial bell.
Gov. Paul LePage and other political and anti-abortion leaders spoke at a rally held at St. Michael Catholic Parish gymnasium before the march to the Capitol building. The annual Hands Around the Capitol memorial, hosted by Maine Right to Life Committee, began with a prayer service at RiverRock Christian Fellowship in Chelsea and a Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Augusta.
At the start of his 10-minute speech, LePage told everyone in the audience under 41 years of age to stand.
“Each and every one of you should thank your parents because you’re here today and you’re not one of the victims,” he said.
He thanked the audience members for their efforts in trying to reduce abortions and said they are making headway in the fight.
The number of abortions in the state declined 23 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 2,311 to 1,773, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention provided by the Maine Right to Life Committee.
Maine’s abortion rate has been consistently lower than the U.S. abortion rate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, although the difference shrank slightly between 1991 and 2008. Maine had a rate of 11.2 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 2008, compared to 19.6 in the U.S.
However, Maine is known for having less restrictive abortion laws than in other states.
NARAL Pro-Choice America gives the state an A, ranking it seventh overall, for its contraception and abortion laws; and all three abortion-related bills supported by Maine Right to Life Committee failed in the Legislature last year
Teresa McCann-Tumidajski, executive director of Maine Right to Life Committee, said she thinks the drop in abortions and the abortion rate between 2008 and 2011 is the result of more education and the ability of women to see their children with ultrasounds.
LePage, who sometimes tells stories of his rough upbringing in Lewiston, largely spoke about the importance of children having a supportive family. After abortion is eliminated, the next big challenge is putting the family back together, he said.
“Children need two parents. They need a father, and they need a mother,” he said.
LePage didn’t suggest ways the state could help strengthen families, but he said poverty in the state would continue to win “until we commit ourselves to truly putting our families together and educating.”
He said efforts to eliminate abortion are critical to the state sustaining its population, a population that has an older median age than any other state.
Daniels also spoke about the need to support children. He advocated for increased spending on Head Start Program, a federal education program for low-income children. He said funding for early-education programs is both morally right and fiscally sound because studies have shown spending on programs such as Head Start will lead to greater savings down the road.
“We need to serve the children for the next generation, not only as a moral imperative, but because they will take the baton from us,” Daniels said.
He said it’s important for parents, especially single mothers, to know there is support and help for them when raising their children.
“Instead of resenting women who have the guts to bring a child into the world, we should be helping her however we can,” Daniels said. “If we really want reduce abortions, then we have to work and make the inspired public choices that will give these parents a break and make it possible for them to all serve life as generously as we do.”