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House panel passes late-term abortion, notification bills

SANTA FE – Two proposals to restrict abortion in New Mexico moved forward on party-line votes Friday at the Roundhouse, setting up House floor votes next week on the hot-button measures.

The bills have sparked emotional debate and divided religious leaders, while igniting arguments similar to those in a 2013 Albuquerque city election in which Duke City voters rejected a proposed late-term abortion ban.

Backers of the measures described abortions, specifically late-term abortions, as “barbaric” and “cruel,” while opponents said such procedures are rare and usually in response to serious medical conditions.

One of the bills under consideration at the Capitol would ban most abortions during or after the 20th week of pregnancy, while the other would require girls under age 18 who want to have an abortion to notify a parent or guardian before having the procedure done.

Both measures were approved 7-6 in the House Judiciary Committee, with Republican lawmakers voting in favor and Democrats casting “no” votes.

About 60 members of the public braved cold weather to attend Friday’s hearing on the two bills, which lasted more than four hours.

Alan Firestone, a retired Bernalillo physician, said decisions on whether to have a late-term abortion should be up to doctors and their patients, saying, “I think physicians are already regulated enough with respect to these (procedures).”

But Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the late-term abortion bill would be a step toward doing away with abortion – a position the Catholic Church supports.

“I think you’re actually called to vote for this,” Sanchez told lawmakers.

The two GOP-backed abortion bills were prompted in part by political changes at the Roundhouse, where Republicans have a majority in the House this year for the first time in 60 years.

The late-term abortion bill approved Friday, House Bill 390, was modeled after similar laws in Missouri and Ohio, supporters testified.

It would allow exceptions if an abortion were necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman – although doctors also would be required to take “all reasonable steps” to preserve the life and health of the fetus – or if the pregnancy resulted from sexual abuse, rape or incest.

Doctors could face at least a year’s suspension or revocation of their licenses and a $5,000 fine for performing late-term abortions.

In addition to barring most late-term abortions, the legislation could also allow pharmacists to decline to provide the “morning-after” pill – to possibly pregnant women, said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

“This is … vastly broader than just a 20-week ban,” Egolf said during Friday’s debate.

Current state law allows doctors and nurses to decline to take part in abortions if they object to the procedure on moral or religious grounds. The proposed law would allow pharmacists to decline as well.

Meanwhile, the parental notification measure, sponsored by House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, was amended Friday to allow for the notification requirement to be bypassed if a teen girl’s life or health were on the line.

Maureen Small, an Albuquerque family practice doctor, said the proposal, House Bill 391, would amount to an “unnecessary impediment” to an already difficult decision.

But backers pointed out that minors cannot currently get prescription medications or tattoos in New Mexico without parental consent.

A full House vote on the two abortion-related measures is expected to occur late next week.

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