Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers moved a step closer Saturday to repealing an anti-abortion law that has been on the books for 50 years, but largely unenforceable since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The state law – one of just nine of its kind in the country – makes it a crime for an abortion provider to end a woman’s pregnancy, except in certain circumstances.
The proposal, House Bill 51, set off hours of emotional debate in the Capitol, as people on both sides turned out in force to testify – sometimes through tears – during a committee hearing.
In the end, the proposal passed 3-2 and must clear just one more committee before reaching the House floor. It was a party-line vote, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.
Many of those who testified – both for and against – shared intensely personal stories about pregnancy, rape and abortion.
Janet Williams, president of the Santa Fe chapter of the National Organization for Women, described seeking out an illegal abortion while she was in college before the Roe decision.
“I don’t want any woman to have to go through what I went through,” Williams told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t think women or doctors should be criminalized for making a health care decision.”
Opponents, in turn, said the repeal would go too far. New Mexico has too few abortion restrictions as it is, they said, and they raised the prospect of young or abused women being coerced into an abortion without recourse.
“We are now known as a late-term abortion state, which I’m very ashamed of,” said Pauline Anaya, an Albuquerque educator and therapist.
New Mexico’s criminal abortion law, passed in 1969, makes it a felony for an abortion provider to end a women’s pregnancy, except in certain circumstances, such as rape, birth defects or grave threats to the woman’s health. The procedure is also limited to hospitals and must be approved in writing by a hospital board.
The legislation passed Saturday would also remove a section of the abortion law that says hospital employees with a moral or religious objection cannot be forced to participate in ending a pregnancy.
Supporters of the bill – including attorneys who served as expert witnesses – said other provisions in state and federal law already ensure no medical provider is forced to participate in an abortion.
But opponents said they feared the repeal would weaken safeguards that allow medical providers to follow their conscience.
“I just have a deep concern that we are taking the only explicit protection we have for individuals,” said Rep. Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican and surgeon.
Rep. Elizabeth Thomson, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, responded that the proposal will head next to the Judiciary Committee – a panel well qualified, she said, to examine any unintended legal consequences of the bill.
Schmedes and fellow Republican Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell voted against the bill.
In favor were Democrats Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces and Thomson.
Rep. Joanne Ferrary, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the changing composition of the U.S. Supreme Court – amid President Trump’s vow to appoint “pro-life justices” – underscores the urgency of repealing the state’s criminal abortion law and preserving the status quo in New Mexico.
“It is time to remove this archaic law from New Mexico’s books,” she said in Saturday’s hearing. “With the threat of a Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe, we need to pass this bill to protect health care providers and keep abortion safe and legal.”
In addition to Ferrary, three Albuquerque Democrats are co-sponsoring House Bill 51 – Rep. Georgene Louis, Sen. Linda Lopez and Rep. Deborah Armstrong.
Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, has said she supports repealing the state’s anti-abortion law.
State analysts who prepared a report for legislators said all or parts of the New Mexico law have already been found unconstitutional.
The repeal would leave untouched the state’s ban on partial-birth abortion, the analysts said.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, says New Mexico doesn’t have any of the major abortion restrictions – such as waiting periods, mandated parental involvement or limitations on publicly funded abortions – found in some states.