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New Mexico Democrats seek repeal of outdated abortion ban

SANTA FE, N.M. — Democrats in the New Mexico Legislature are preparing plans to ensure legal, safe access to abortions in case regulation of the procedure is returned to states.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces said she plans to introduce legislation for the next session that removes the state’s criminal ban on abortion in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a 1973 decision that made the procedure legal nationwide.

She said her cause has taken on new urgency with the addition of Republican-appointed justices under President Donald Trump.

A 1969 New Mexico statute made it a felony for an abortion provider to terminate a pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, birth defects and serious threats to a woman’s health. The law has been unenforceable for 45 years because of the high court’s ruling.

New Mexico is one of nine states that retain abortion bans that are not enforced because of the Supreme Court decision, according to the abortion rights Guttmacher Institute that monitors local laws. Four more states have laws that would automatically ban abortion if the Supreme Court rescinds the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Identical bills to repeal New Mexico’s abortion ban since the election of Trump went nowhere during the tenure of Republican Gov. Susan Martinez, who leaves office at the end of the year.

The revived proposal has the public support of Democratic Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate majority leader Peter Wirth have set repeal as a high priority for the legislative session that starts in January.

“It is an antiquated law intended to punish women, whose reproductive choices should be between their physician or medical practitioner and themselves,” Lujan Grisham said last week. “If the bill gets through — and I feel strongly that it will — that would be something we would sign.”

State abortion policies received scant attention during the gubernatorial race, as Lujan-Grisham won election by a 14 percentage point margin. Republican House minority whip Rod Montoya said he still hopes socially conservative Democrats, including Roman Catholics, will join Republicans in resisting efforts to remove state abortion restrictions.

“The big problem we have with that is it does away with conscience clauses for doctors that have moral disagreements with performing abortions,” he said. “I think there will still be a fight.”

Federal legal provisions would continue to allow people to decline to perform abortions based on religious objections under Ferrary’s proposal, said Erin Armstrong, reproductive rights attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico.

Both supporters and detractors of the New Mexico statute banning abortion say little attention was paid to the law in previous decades.

“We can never predict with certainty what the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately will do or how they will rule on abortion access,” Armstrong said. “We do feel it is an emergency around cleaning up this old statute now.”

In the midterm election, Democrats extended their majority in the state House or Representatives, likely claiming 46 seats out of 70 with recounts pending in a handful of races. The Democrat-controlled Senate is up for re-election in 2020.

Ferrary said her bill would maintain the current status quo in New Mexico, which she describes as “legal and safe” access to abortion for women.

Ferrary said she remembers what it was like for women before the federal legalization of abortion.

“I had friends in college who chose to seek an abortion,” she said. “There was a lot of stigma around it and also a lot of risk.”

Local leaders of the Roman Catholic Church plan to lobby against removing the state’s dormant abortion ban for a variety of reasons, said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.

About 4,650 abortions were performed in New Mexico in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute.