By DANIEL J. CHACÓN
Less than a week after the New Mexico Legislature’s opening day, lawmakers will begin debating what could be one of the most controversial measures of the 60-day session: the proposed repeal of a 1969 law that makes it a crime to perform an abortion in the state.
The statute has been unenforceable since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. But women’s rights advocates and others worry the high court could overturn or weaken that decision — in which justices found overly restrictive state government regulations of abortion unconstitutional — with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett taking a seat on the bench in October.
Coney Barrett, the nine-member court’s sixth conservative, replaced progressive icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.
The court’s shift to the right created a sense of urgency for abortion advocates in New Mexico. The proposed repeal, Senate Bill 10, is the first bill the state Senate’s Health and Public Affairs Committee will consider Monday.
“As long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, there was no need to go back and deal with language in our laws that prohibited abortion,” Committee Chair Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino said today in an interview.
“But now that there is a very real possibility that attempts will be made to overturn Roe v. Wade at the federal level, it does make it urgent that we deal with it locally in a way that would preserve that right to choice,” the Albuquerque Democrat said.
SB 10, introduced on the session’s opening day Tuesday, went all the way to the Senate floor in 2019 but failed when eight moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats joined all 16 Republican senators in voting to keep the anti-abortion law in the books.
Six of those Democrats are no longer in office. One died later in 2019 and five lost their primary races in June to more progressive candidates who made the anti-abortion law a big campaign issue. Changes in the Senate following the November general election, which slightly widened Democrats’ majority in the chamber, could make it easier for proponents of the repeal to get it passed this year.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, one of the primary sponsors of the legislation, said repealing “an old law that felonizes abortion” is a priority of the Senate Democratic caucus, as well as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat whose legislative agenda includes the proposed repeal.
“We have a whole string of things we’re focused on, but this is an issue that was front and center in the election cycle we just went through, and with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, it is more important than ever that we take this law off our books,” said Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
All but two members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus signed on in support of SB 10 on Tuesday.
“The front page of the bill is covered in signatures … and I’m confident we have the votes in the Senate Democratic caucus to pass this bill,” Wirth said.
Wirth noted the measure is also what is known as a “governor’s bill”, which he said gives it “heightened attention and focus”.
The one-page bill would generate heightened attention regardless.
In 2019, committee hearings were packed with supporters and opponents alike. The hearings could be much more subdued this year: The Roundhouse is closed to the public because of risks posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Ortiz y Pino said, “the same kind of heated atmosphere that we’ve had in the past” will be missing from the Capitol, as the session will be largely virtual.
“This will be a very less intense kind of hearing, but I’m told that it’ll probably have many hundreds of viewers, not just statewide but nationally, who will be trying to weigh in on this,” he said.
Public comment will be limited. At each hearing, groups on opposing sides of the issue will get only 30 minutes or up to 10 speakers to argue their case — “whichever comes first, 10 speakers or 30 minutes,” Ortiz y Pino said.
Ortiz y Pino, who supported the measure in 2019, said he has been receiving “lots and lots of emails” about the proposed repeal.
“I try to let everybody know my position on it, which is basically that we need to respect the woman’s right to have control over her own decision-making, and she and her doctor together have much better knowledge about circumstances than 112 legislators, many of whom will never have to be faced with that decision ourselves,” he said.
Ethel Maharg, executive director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, called the argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion a flawed argument.
“If you want to do something with your body, that’s your choice,” she said. “But when you’re talking about abortion, you’re not talking about just your body. You’re talking about another person’s body. You’re destroying another person.”
Sondra Roeuny, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, urged lawmakers to pass the repeal and said the majority of New Mexicans trust women to make their own health care decisions.
Planned Parenthood cited a survey of more than 1,700 New Mexicans who live in rural counties, which found 56 percent believe residents across the state need access to reproductive health care, including abortion. The survey was conducted by Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm.
“Our legislators must be bold and remove the outdated abortion ban to ensure that women and families can access abortion care, without arbitrary restrictions, in consultation with their health care providers, without political interference,” Roeuny wrote in an email. “With several abortion-related cases on their way to a Supreme Court hostile to reproductive rights, we must protect access to care here in our state, no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade.”
New Mexico’s half-century-old abortion ban allows a woman to get an abortion only if she goes before a “special hospital board” to get permission. The only instances in which the hospital panel would grant permission is if the woman presents “an affidavit that she has been raped and that the rape has been or will be reported” to police; continuation of the pregnancy would put the woman at grave risk; the pregnancy resulted from incest; or “the child probably will have a grave physical or mental defect.” The law states that “whoever commits criminal abortion is guilty of a fourth-degree felony” and that “criminal abortion” resulting in the woman’s death is a second-degree felony.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.