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Maine AG wants shield law for health workers who perform care banned in other states

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As red states and blue states go their separate ways on issues like abortion and transgender care, their attorneys general are battling over how far state laws can extend. Some places are adopting what are known as shield laws because they fear their residents will face attempts from other states to penalize them for the work they do. Maine Public Radio's Kevin Miller reports.

KEVIN MILLER, BYLINE: Nurse practitioner Stephanie Small worries that she could be targeted with lawsuits or even prosecution for seeing patients who travel from other states to her Planned Parenthood clinic in Maine for abortions or transgender care.

STEPHANIE SMALL: I certainly haven't felt threatened in Maine, but I see what's happening in other states, and I know that can happen here, and I think we need to prevent that from happening.

MILLER: Recently, officials in states restricting access to abortion or gender-affirming care have said they could prosecute people seeking treatment in more lenient states or go after the health care workers who help them. In turn, Maine's legislature might join a dozen other states with so-called shield laws that protect patients as well as medical providers from out-of-state investigations. It would also allow providers to countersue those investigators. That prompted 16 attorney generals from red states to write a letter threatening legal action against Maine. One of them, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti told the conservative cable news outlet Newsmax that a Maine shield law could violate his state's sovereignty.

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JONATHAN SKRMETTI: This is weaponizing Maine's law to interfere with the enforcement of Tennessee law and other state laws all over the country.

MILLER: Maine's Democratic Attorney General, Aaron Frey, fired back with a letter accusing his counterparts of attempted intimidation and interference. In an interview, he said these, quote, "states rights AGs" are being hypocritical.

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AARON FREY: I couldn't help but think how ironic it was that these states who were so concerned about staying out of our business are coming to insert themselves into Maine's business.

MILLER: And he says they've been emboldened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which protected abortion rights at the federal level.

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FREY: Now that that is gone, now that 50 years of effort was successful in that regard, these same groups are saying, well, let's take this out for a spin and see what we can get for making the nation look like us.

MILLER: Paul Nolette, the director of the Les Aspin Center for Government at Marquette University, says he isn't surprised by the exchange.

PAUL NOLETTE: AGs have gotten more polarized over time, and as they have, you have that kind of deep red state, blue state conflict. AGs have been trying to find new ways to, frankly, wage the culture war.

MILLER: Republican and Democratic AGs still cooperate on some issues, like suing opioid manufacturers. But Nolette says partisanship increased as Democratic AGs challenged George W. Bush, Republicans resisted the Obama administration and Democrats fought the Trump White House. Even so, Nolette says AGs usually slug it out in court briefs, not dueling letters.

NOLETTE: I think it's quite fair to characterize this as highly unusual, but not surprising. You know, given the broader context of polarization that's happening.

MILLER: the stakes go well beyond legal wrangling. One of the 16 AGs vowing to fight Maine's shield law has already tested the limits of similar protections. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton subpoenaed records from a Seattle hospital and a Georgia clinic about Texas youth seeking gender-affirming care. Washington's shield law blocked him there, and the Seattle facility countersued Paxton. Back in Maine, nurse practitioner Small says she hopes lawmakers will protect her ability to provide care without interference.

SMALL: My job as a clinician is to provide quality health care for all people, and I am honored to do that, and I shouldn't be put at risk for laws from other states for doing my job here.

MILLER: Maine's House and Senate will debate the proposed shield law in the coming weeks, and the votes are expected to largely follow party lines. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Miller in Augusta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Miller | Maine Public
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