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Late-term abortion ban referendum goes to final vote today

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Voters today will decide whether to make Albuquerque the first city in the country to adopt a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The special election comes after several months of provocative anti-abortion protests and counter-protests that put New Mexico at the center of the national debate over abortion.

Supporters of the measure gathered thousands of petition signatures this summer to force a special election on the issue. Similar legislation has passed elsewhere, but it’s never been tried at the city level, they say.

The proposal has generated intense feelings on both sides. Supporters say it’s necessary to protect “unborn children” from the pain of abortion. Opponents contend abortion is a decision better left to a woman and her doctor, not the government.

Early voting, which ended Friday, was heavy.

About 43,900 people cast ballots at early-voting sites, far outpacing the number in last month’s mayoral election, when 26,208 people voted early.

Whether that will translate to a big turnout today isn’t clear.

For weeks, there have been aggressive media campaigns using television and newspaper ads. And both sides have had support from local and national organizations.

“Other than Election Day, I think the second-most important day of this two-month campaign was last Sunday, yesterday, when many of the churches urged the faithful to vote in support of the ban,” pollster Brian Sanderoff said Monday in an interview. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens on Election Day.”

Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., which does surveys for the Journal, said it’s still likely to be a low-turnout election despite early returns that exceed those of last month’s mayoral election, when only 20 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots.

‘Remove that curse’

At the center of the debate is a Downtown clinic that performs late-term abortions – one of only a handful of its kind in the country.

“Albuquerque, New Mexico, has become known as the late-term abortion capital of America,” local Pastor Clarence Washington of Abundant Life Church told supporters gathered Monday. “… We have an obligation to try and remove that curse.”

Opponents, meanwhile, say abortion is a personal decision.

Dr. Elizabeth Matthews, a retired pediatrician who spoke at a news conference Friday, said she encountered only three patients who faced abortion decisions “later in pregnancy” during 32 years of practice. They included a woman whose life was endangered by pregnancy, a 12-year-old victim impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend and a woman carrying a fetus with severe anomalies, she said.

“I can attest to the pain and grief that those women and families went through in facing that decision,” Matthews said. “The government and proponents of this ballot measure have no place in intruding in that personal, private decision.”

Wording criticized

The proposal before voters today would enact a city ordinance banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except to save the life of the pregnant woman.

The wording of the ordinance has drawn criticism from some voters, who describe it as odd and confusing. The proposal, because it’s a petition initiative, was written by supporters, not the City Council or city attorneys.

The proposal is printed in its entirety on the ballot. It opens with a section describing supporters’ justification for the ordinance: that “unborn children” can feel pain 20 weeks after fertilization. It then goes on to outline a general prohibition on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and it concludes with a section defining terms.

The debate has triggered unusual protests, including one where anti-abortion activists visited the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum to argue for inclusion of a panel about abortion in the United States. Hundreds of people responded later with a counter-protest on Civic Plaza.

Affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have poured money into the campaign opposing the ban. On the other side, funding in favor has come from the Susan B. Anthony List and others.

Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue in Kansas, visited Albuquerque on Monday to rally people in favor of the ordinance, which she said was a continuation of the group’s work in Wichita. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, was also in town, where she was working with opponents of the ban to reach out to Latino voters.

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