Editor’s note: In the nine months since Roe v. Wade was overturned, New Mexico has emerged as a safe haven for those seeking abortion. This is the first in a series about the fight around abortion access in the state. The second part can be found here and the third can be found here.
CLOVIS — In late September, two Clovis pastors and a high school science teacher hosted a community meeting to explore whether there was interest in pushing for an ordinance banning abortion providers from setting up shop in their small city 10 miles from the Texas border.
Estimates differ on how many people attended, but everyone agrees the Grace Covenant Reformed Church sanctuary was “overflowing” and “standing room only.” They had to drag in extra chairs.
The special guest? Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas, has helped a number of jurisdictions ban abortion in his home state and has since been traveling the country talking to other cities and counties.
About three months later Clovis joined Hobbs and Lea County in passing what Dickson calls a “de facto abortion ban.” In the ensuing three weeks two other jurisdictions — Roosevelt County and the city of Eunice — followed suit.
Now the anti-abortion activists are anticipating a future fight; they want to challenge the passage of New Mexico’s House Bill 7, which makes such ordinances illegal, in court — and ultimately before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Our collective plan from the beginning was knowing that (the ordinance) was going to lose at the state level and to get it out of the state and get it to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Logan Brown, the 35-year-old science teacher, said. “That was always part of the plan. And so a lot of this has just kind of fallen into place.”
House Bill 7 prevents a jurisdiction from denying, restricting or interfering with a person’s ability to access or provide reproductive health care. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it into law last week.
Asked about a possible Supreme Court challenge, Elinor Rushforth, the managing reproductive rights and gender equity attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, criticized “out-of-state interests,” who she said are “trying to use our communities as a political football in their nationwide campaign to limit the rights of millions of Americans.”
“However, our state’s Constitution and the laws our elected leaders passed this session make it clear that every New Mexican has the right to access the health care they need to build families, be healthy, and thrive,” Rushforth said in a statement. “New Mexico is and will remain a leader in ensuring access to reproductive and gender-affirming health care.”
Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored the bill along with four other female legislators, was unequivocal when she said she is not at all concerned about a legal challenge.
“We’re talking about a state’s ability to oversee laws in its state and be consistent in that,” Serrato said. “This is absolutely within our right as a state to say that we need consistent health care laws on these issues.”
House Bill 7 goes into effect on June 16.
At that point, Serrato said, a district attorney or attorney general would have the ability to make sure “public bodies are not creating laws that inhibit people from getting the health care they need.”
Before the state law passed, Attorney General Raúl Torrez asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to issue a stay declaring the ordinances that effectively outlawed abortion void. A ruling has not yet been made.
No. 1 authority is the Bible
On a recent Thursday, Brown and Erick Welsh — the 40-year-old pastor of Grace Covenant Reformed Church — met with the Journal as wind whistled across the rafters. A slender cross tops the light brick building where the two-year-old congregation rents space.
The third member of their trio, another pastor, was out of town that day.
Outside the sky was hazy with blowing dust. An earthy-farm smell permeated the air.
In discussing their crusade, Brown and Welsh made the distinction between abortions meant to save the life of the mother and what they call “induced abortions.” In fact, Welsh said, a long time ago his ex-wife had a medical procedure commonly called a D&C in the first couple of months of a pregnancy after they were told that it “would have resulted in the death of potentially both — one for sure.”
“It was painful,” he said. “It was sad, you know, but it’s what had to be done.”
In response to a question about the fact that women are leading the charge for abortion access and men seem to be the most vocal in the fight against it, Welsh said “it has nothing to do with gender — it is specifically the fact that it is the unjust taking of a human life.”
Each of the men is married. Brown has four children and Welsh has three.
“Our No. 1 authority is the Bible and what God says about what life is about …,” Welsh said. “We have excessive amounts of Scripture where people are recognized as people before they were born — while they’re in the womb. If that one who is in the womb is a human well then we must protect that human. This is a non-negotiable moral issue for the church.”
He and Brown expressed confidence that if House Bill 7 gets challenged in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, it would decide in their favor. And just maybe the justices would “open up the language to where this could ultimately end abortion in America” down the line.
“I mean if you would have asked us even six or eight months ago if we would have ever thought that we could be part of something that could actually — possibly — have the ramifications of ending abortion nationwide, neither one of us would have been like, ‘oh, yeah, we’re going to be those guys, we’re going to be in the middle of that direct fight,’” Brown said.
A group of progressives
Not everyone in eastern New Mexico opposes abortion access.
Krista Pietsch, 34, moved to Clovis in 2005 as a senior in high school when her father was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base. She went to Albuquerque for college, but ultimately returned to the area to get her master’s degree at Eastern New Mexico University. She is now in nursing school.
She said she’s found the rural community welcoming and loving and that’s why she’s stuck around, but it has also been disenfranchising to live in a red pocket of a blue state.
“It’s very much like an extension of West Texas, in a sense,” Pietsch said.
In 2019, Pietsch and her then-boyfriend — now-husband — decided to end a pregnancy and had to travel the 3½ hours to Albuquerque and spend the night.
“The people who can travel to Albuquerque are those that have good-paying jobs, paid time off, access to transportation, to extra funds, to supportive partners …,” Pietsch said. “They can afford the hotel bill and the gas.”
Calling the area a “health care desert,” she stresses that it’s not just about having access to abortion or other reproductive health care, the community also struggles to retain good doctors and keep clinics open.
After the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — which overturned Roe v. Wade’s protection of abortion rights — progressives banded together to form Eastern New Mexico Rising.
Pietsch, now the public affairs officer, joined them in protesting and speaking out at contentious commission meetings.
Other members traveled to Santa Fe to lobby during the legislative session.
In January the group circulated a petition for a special election regarding the anti-abortion ordinances in Clovis and Roosevelt County, but they couldn’t obtain enough signatures.
Their opponents frequently tout that failure as an example of the conservative nature of their city.
Dickson, the anti-abortion activist from Texas, spoke with the Journal by phone while driving from one small city in Virginia to an even smaller one. He has become a prominent figure in the fight against abortion access nationwide as he travels the country speaking at churches, Republican club gatherings, prayer meetings and more.
He, too, said the language in House Bill 7 could end up before the Supreme Court.
“In many ways, what the New Mexico Legislature is doing with HB 7 is, it is paving the way that we could end up before the Supreme Court of the United States with this issue,” Dickson said. “And we’re OK with that.”
Others are more wary.
Clovis Mayor Mike Morris, who identifies himself as pro-life, said he had advised the commission to wait and see what actions the state Legislature took. Instead, he said, it bowed to the pressure from Dickson, Welsh and Brown to go ahead and pass the ordinance.
“Our community very much wanted us, the commission, to take some sort of visible action that would reflect what they believed to be, you know, the values held by the majority of us,” said Morris. “What I knew was that the ordinance would actually more than likely be invalidated.”
Speaking with the Journal just hours after House Bill 7 was signed into law, Morris said he’s waiting for advice from the city legal team on how to proceed.