It’s barely after 10 a.m., and Operation Rescue’s “truth truck” is already infuriating passers-by.
The truck – plastered with billboard-size pictures of dismembered fetuses – is circling through the University of New Mexico campus as anti-abortion protesters hand out fliers.
“It’s disgusting,” says one woman, a pediatrician dropping her daughter off for an event at Popejoy Hall. “I’m really worried about the effects these images have on children.”
That’s the point, the protesters say. Abortion is disgusting, they say, and people should have a strong reaction.
Provocative protests like these have become a part of life in Albuquerque, intensified this year by the debate over whether to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. A ballot measure is before voters in an election that ends Tuesday.
The campaign has drawn national interest, with national groups on the both sides of the issue involved in the campaign.
Out-of-state groups have led some of the most aggressive demonstrations in the city. They call Albuquerque the “late-term abortion capital” of the country.
One organization, “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust,” based in California, demanded an exhibit this summer at the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Downtown Albuquerque. That drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League and Mayor Richard Berry.
The same group also protested with signs and megaphones outside the North Valley home of a doctor they identified as an “abortionist.” That led to a new county law prohibiting protests outside a private residence.
On Thursday, the “Survivors” group was back, handing out fliers at UNM, while the Operation Rescue truck drove by. They intend to stay in town through Election Day.
Bud Shaver, one of the local activists who invited “Survivors” to Albuquerque, said it’s normal for people to respond with disgust to the graphic images.
But it’s important, he said, to show abortion as the “violent, brutal act that it is.”
Shaver and his wife, Tara, worked with Operation Rescue in Kansas before moving to Albuquerque. Counter protests, including one held on Civic Plaza earlier this summer, have targeted Operation Rescue’s involvement in New Mexico.
How Albuquerque ended up at the center of the debate is a matter of some dispute. Anti-abortion activists say New Mexico’s lax laws attracted abortion providers.
Southwest Women’s Options, a clinic on Lomas between Downtown and Interstate 25, is now one of only a few in the country that performs third-trimester abortions.
“There’s a place for rational, reasonable public debate,” said Patrick Davis, executive director of the liberal-advocacy group ProgressNow New Mexico. “But Operation Rescue has been tied to some really radical tactics.”
Davis said the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in Kansas has played a role in bringing the focus here. Some of Tiller’s colleagues started working at an Albuquerque clinic in 2010, the year after Tiller’s death.
Tara Shaver said she and Bud came to Albuquerque after learning that a doctor here “had sought to replace George Tiller” and hired some of his colleagues.
Shaver said she and Bud trained with Operation Rescue in Kansas to learn how to shut down abortion clinics. Then, Project Defending Life, a pro-life ministry, invited them to Albuquerque, she said.
Operation Rescue owns the “truth truck” and helped bring national attention to the debate in Albuquerque, Tara Shaver said.
As for the murder of Tiller in Kansas, Shaver said Operation Rescue “has always spoken out against violence” and that any suggestion otherwise is just “empty rhetoric.”
“We don’t want these abortionists to be killed,” Tara Shaver said. “We want them to stop killing babies.”
On the other side of the debate, affiliates of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, from across the country, have donated to the campaign fighting the ballot measure.