Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Fresh off an election cycle in which it was a central issue, Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico are weighing how to reinforce abortion rights and access to reproductive health care in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.
Their ideas include codifying abortion rights in state law, investing in telehealth and clinics that provide reproductive health care, and protecting providers or patients who travel to New Mexico to escape restrictions in other states.
Democrats are in strong position to advance their priorities after emerging from the general election with their control of the Roundhouse intact.
But there’s still debate over the right approach, such as whether it’d be advantageous to enshrine abortion rights directly in state law.
And they can expect intense opposition from Republican lawmakers who say New Mexicans would support reasonable limits on abortion.
As the 2023 session approaches, one priority for Democrats is expanding access to reproductive health care in general – a key issue in a geographically large state with a shortage of doctors and nurses.
“Having the right is very different from being able to utilize it,” state Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview.
To that end, she said, lawmakers are likely to focus at least in part on improving telehealth infrastructure and perhaps building clinics to provide a spectrum of pregnancy and reproductive health care services.
Some patients in rural parts of the state, Serrato said, now travel for hours to Santa Fe or Albuquerque for pregnancy-related care.
Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, said New Mexico families need access to a full spectrum of health care, ranging from pregnancy services to behavioral health programs.
“Abortion is health care,” Lara Cadena said, “and part of the way we get there is making sure we meet the full needs of our familias without shame or stigma.”
Abortion itself is legal in New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law last year a measure repealing the state’s 1969 law criminalizing abortion in most cases – unenforceable for decades because of the 1973 court decision in Roe v. Wade.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision in June this year, however, putting abortion rights in the hands of states.
Democrats seized on the issue in campaigns for governor and the New Mexico House of Representatives, pitching themselves as stout defenders of abortion rights.
As she sought reelection, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order in August pledging $10 million to build a state-funded clinic to provide abortion and other services in Doña Ana County.
In June, she approved an order intended to shield health care providers from discipline if they provide abortion services. It also asserts New Mexico won’t comply with abortion-related arrest warrants or extradition requests from other states.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said legislators are evaluating how to put some or all of the June order into state law, making it more difficult for a future governor to repeal the protections.
Also on the table, she said, is a proposal to prohibit public entities from interfering with or denying the reproductive rights of people in New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor has been clear about “her commitment to taking every necessary action to protect abortion access.”
Democrats next session will hold a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 edge in the Senate. The House margin is contingent on recounts in two races.
“Our office is working with legislators and policy leaders,” Sackett said, “to identify the best approach to ensure abortion rights are fully protected, both for patients seeking care and for providers doing their jobs.”
‘Out of touch’
The debate over abortion rights has already shaken up the Roundhouse. It was a key issue in Democratic primary campaigns two years ago, when a host of anti-abortion Democrats lost their Senate seats.
It cleared the way for Lujan Grisham and the Legislature to repeal New Mexico’s dormant abortion ban in 2021.
But Republican lawmakers and candidates have argued Democrats are going too far and that New Mexico voters would support some of the abortion restrictions imposed in other states, such as parental notification for minors.
“Although many New Mexicans do not oppose abortion altogether, it’s clear that most support reasonable limits and protections for women and children,” Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said. “The Democrats’ plan to expand abortion access for minors and women from out of state is completely out of touch.”
Diamond flipped a Democratic-held seat in 2020 after the longtime incumbent, John Arthur Smith, lost in the primary to a more left-leaning Democrat.
“Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has returned the issue of abortion to the states, New Mexico legislators must prioritize the voices of their constituents over the demands of special interest groups and the multi-million-dollar abortion industry,” Diamond said.
Democrats, nonetheless, campaigned on safeguarding abortion rights, and they say they intend to deliver.
Serrato said investing in infrastructure that strengthens access to reproductive health care is a clear priority.
But legislators are still evaluating whether abortion rights ought to be written directly into law.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said writing abortion language into a state law isn’t necessary.
“Frankly, some of us would like our statutes to remain as they are,” she said.
State law, Stewart said, “doesn’t talk about abortion care because that’s really between women and their doctors, their families, etc. As soon as we put it into statute, then it can be tinkered with.”
Serrato put it this way: “We’re still weighing what’s necessary and what makes the most sense.”
But “nothing,” she said, “is off the table.”
Lawmakers are set to open their 60-day session Jan. 17.