Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico laws don’t have much to say about abortion. But it’s not for lack of trying.
Each year over the past 20 years, state lawmakers supporting anti-abortion efforts have introduced legislation intended to limit the practice in New Mexico. Most of those efforts failed to gain traction – typically at the committee level – in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.
That means anti-abortion proposals, including a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy that’s now a ballot initiative in Tuesday’s election in Albuquerque, were regularly killed in legislative committees, pre-empting debate on the issue on the state House or Senate floors.
Anti-abortion lawmakers say the decision of supporters to turn to Albuquerque voters with the 20-week ban proposal was a result of the Legislature’s history of inaction on the issue. If the measure passes, Albuquerque will be the first city in the U.S. to adopt abortion restrictions by voter referendum.
“It’s 100 percent responsible,” said Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, a regular sponsor of anti-abortion legislation. “A relatively small group of people in Albuquerque clearly made the decision that the Legislature’s absolute refusal to protect human beings was unacceptable and we will find another way to do it. … I think they viewed all of us as failures and decided they were going to do it themselves.”
Lawmakers supporting abortion rights counter that the lack of abortion-related legislation coming out of Santa Fe is an accurate reflection of the views of New Mexicans who routinely re-elect lawmakers who pledge to defend abortion rights in the state Capitol.
“For 30 years, right-to-life and right-to-choose have battled at the ballot box, and (in New Mexico) right-to-choose candidates win. These wins are a reflection of what’s happening in the Legislature,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.
“Over and over and over again, you have legislators vote pro-choice, and over and over and over again they’re re-elected, and for the most part re-elected overwhelmingly,” McSorley said. “It’s only in these special elections with low information that they (anti-abortion advocates) think they can win.”
Other legislation routinely introduced in Santa Fe without success includes efforts to strengthen parental notification requirements for minors seeking abortions and establish a 24-hour waiting period before abortions with notice of risks and available financial benefits if the fetus is carried to term.
Robert Schwartz, a UNM law professor who specializes in health care policy, said New Mexico’s short legislative sessions, alternating between 30 days and 60 days every other year, play a role in the limited legislation the state has adopted on a controversial issue like abortion.
“As is the case in every legislature, it’s easier to kill a bill than to get a bill,” Schwartz said. “What Roe v. Wade did is change the default position. Before Roe v. Wade, you needed a state action to permit abortion. Since Roe v. Wade, you need a statute to limit abortion. … The obligation, the burden is on those who want to limit abortion.”
One exception in which the New Mexico Legislature took action on an abortion issue came in 2000 with the passage of a ban on partial-birth abortions, a late-term abortion procedure.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said the passage of the state partial birth abortion ban is evidence that abortion issues are not ignored in Santa Fe. Rather, the issues are routinely given committee hearing but fail to garner the votes necessary to advance to a floor debate.
“For people to claim we didn’t address the issue is wrong,” Chasey said. “All of the other attempts to further restrict legal access to abortion have just been killed in the Legislature. This (proposed Albuquerque ballot initiative) has, I think, nothing whatsoever to do with that.”
The effort to limit abortions beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy is relatively new at the Capitol.
Legislation mirroring the proposed ban Albuquerque voters are considering was first introduced in Santa Fe in 2011, one year after a similar bill was enacted in Nebraska. Since then, 12 other states have enacted similar laws.
Dauneen Dolce, executive director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico and a lobbyist for anti-abortion legislation, said legislative committees have been the major hurdle for passing new anti-abortion laws.
“The liberals took over the committees,” Dolce said. “We have the votes if it gets to the floor on all our bills, but it’s the committee system that has been used to kill the bills.”
However, Dolce said she expects the issue will draw more attention in the Legislature following the debate over an Albuquerque later-term abortion ban.
Democratic lawmakers criticized the effort to enact a 20-week abortion ban by voter referendum in Albuquerque and bypassing the Legislature.
“It sets a really bad precedent,” McSorley said. “The people that vote for this have got to understand that if this is the way things are going to be done by special interests in the future, we are opening the floodgates to every special interest in the country to come in here and write things into our City Charter that will make it impossible to govern Albuquerque.”
The issue made it on to a city special election ballot after supporters collected as many as 27,000 petition signatures. Last year, advocates for lower-income workers used a similar method in a general election to adopt an increased minimum wage in Albuquerque after efforts in the Legislature failed.
Sharer countered that municipal referendums are an appropriate way to advance good policy when lawmakers are standing in the way.
“I think it’s the perfect approach,” Sharer said. “If we can’t do it through the normal system, here’s another avenue that’s available to us, a still legitimate way of doing business. I think had we acted as a Legislature before, this wouldn’t be an issue here today.”