Senate blocks repeal of 1969 abortion ban

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Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, presents a bill to remove an old anti-abortion law from New Mexico’s books. Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, foreground, and others defeated the bill on the Senate floor Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers on Thursday rejected a proposal that would have repealed the state’s 1969 anti-abortion law – an issue that emerged as one of the most emotional of the session.

The legislation, backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, failed on a 24-18 vote after a brisk debate on the Senate floor.

Eight Democrats joined all 16 Republicans in voting against it.

A few lawmakers shared intensely personal stories – speaking about miscarriage, grief, religion and the sanctity of life – during speeches on the Senate floor.

The legislation, House Bill 51, sought to repeal a law that makes it a crime to end a woman’s pregnancy, except in certain circumstances, such as rape.

The statute is largely unenforceable now because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, but supporters said they fear the court will revisit the landmark abortion decision.

The issue divided Democrats in the Senate.

Sen. Gabriel Ramos, a Silver City Democrat appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate earlier this year, cited his religious beliefs and the Catholic Church before voting against the bill.

“This is one of the toughest decisions any of us will ever have to make,” he said as senators prepared to vote. “I stand unified against legislation that weakens the defense of life and threatens the dignity of the human being.”

Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who supported the bill, said she twice endured miscarriages because of a medical condition. Women should be able to choose for themselves, she said.

“These are private decisions made by women under unusual circumstances,” Stewart said. “It’s crucial that we do not criminalize doctors, nurses or women for these procedures.”

The legislation set off hours of emotional debate in the Legislature this session. Supporters and opponents sometimes testified through tears as they spoke about the proposal in committee hearings.

The proposal passed the House last month 40-29.

The legislation targeted a law that’s one of just eight of its kind left in the country.

Supporters said the repeal was important because of President Donald Trump’s pledge to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court.

In her State of the State address, newly elected Democratic Gov. Lujan Grisham pushed for passage of the measure.

Lujan Grisham said she was disappointed in the vote.

“This old, outdated statute criminalizing health care providers is an embarrassment,” she said in a statement posted to Twitter. “That removing it was even a debate, much less a difficult vote for some senators, is inexplicable to me.”

Democrats hold a 26-16 edge in the Senate, but the vote didn’t fall along party lines.

Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Pete Campos of Las Vegas, Carlos Cisneros of Questa, Richard Martinez of Española, George Muñoz of Gallup, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Ramos, Clemente “Meme” Sanchez of Grants and John Arthur Smith of Deming.

Debate lasted less than an hour – brief by legislative standards on a controversial bill.

If approved, the bill would have gone back to the House because a Senate committee had amended the legislation.

The Senate change left in place a section of law that said people who object on moral grounds can’t be forced to participate in an abortion. Supporters of the legislation had argued the “conscience” clause was redundant and not actually needed to ensure people don’t have to participate.

That issue, in any case, didn’t surface during Thursday’s floor debate.

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