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Effort to repeal NM abortion ban advances

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, testifies from his Capitol office Monday on a bill repealing a long-dormant New Mexico abortion ban. The bill cleared its first assigned Senate committee on a party-line 5-3 vote (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A renewed attempt to repeal a long-dormant 1969 New Mexico abortion ban cleared its first Roundhouse hurdle Monday after an emotional debate and a lengthy delay caused by technical problems.

The law is unenforceable now because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but supporters said they fear the court will revisit the landmark abortion ruling given changes to the court’s makeup during the presidency of Donald Trump.

“If the Supreme Court decides to change the law, as anticipated, the 1969 statute is back in play, simple as that,” Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said during a Monday meeting of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

“We can hold our own moral values about abortion but still trust a woman and her family to make decisions for themselves,” Lopez said.

Specifically, the legislation, Senate Bill 10, seeks to repeal a law that makes it a crime to end a woman’s pregnancy, except in certain circumstances, such as rape.

The measure passed the Senate committee – its first of two assigned committees – on a party-line 5-3 vote Monday, with the panel’s Democratic members voting in favor and Republicans voting in opposition.

The start of the hearing was delayed for more than two hours due to technological issues, as lawmakers continue to grapple with conducting much of this year’s 60-day legislative session online.

Once the meeting finally got underway, public testimony on the bill was limited to one hour, with supporters and opponents of the measure each getting 30 minutes to speak.

Critics described New Mexico as already being the “late-term abortion capital” of the United States, a reference to the fact an Albuquerque clinic is one of the few facilities that perform abortions up to 28 weeks and on a case-by-case basis after that under certain circumstances.

Elisa Martinez, the executive director of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, cited increased health risks to women posed by abortions during the final stages of a woman’s pregnancy.

“No one can claim this bill is safe for women or our young girls,” Martinez said.

Some health care workers also testified in opposition to the bill, and predicted there could be an exodus of medical professionals who object to abortion if the legislation is passed.

“This bill seeks to legislate my conscience,” said Jill Ellsworth, a labor and delivery nurse in Clovis.

But other health care practitioners urged passage of the measure, saying it would ensure women could safely access abortions.

The push to repeal the abortion ban, an effort that is supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, comes two years after a similar bill was defeated on the Senate floor.

But five Democrats who voted against the 2019 bill were defeated in last year’s primary election by more progressive challengers, giving supporters of the measure a dose of optimism in this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, questioned Democratic sponsors about their push to scrap the entire 1969 statute, saying a provision allowing health care practitioners to opt out of performing an abortion for moral or religious reasons should be left intact or updated.

But Democratic backers signaled they would oppose any proposed GOP changes, saying the bill would merely maintain New Mexico’s status quo.

“The wide range of discussions and thoughts that go into that decision is an incredibly personal thing between a patient and a health care provider,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, one of the bill’s sponsors. “What we’re doing here is taking a statute off the books that felonizes that decision.”

During a news conference before Monday’s committee hearing, proponents of the repeal bill also acknowledged an urgency to pass the legislation during this year’s 60-day session.

“It’s not a matter of if Roe v. Wade is undermined, but when,” said Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, one of the sponsors of House Bill 7, a matching measure in the House.

If a repeal measure is signed into law by Lujan Grisham, it will take effect in mid-June.

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