A man protests Monday outside the Roundhouse against a proposal to repeal a 1969 law that criminalizes abortion in New Mexico. Photo by Luis Sánchez Saturno/SFNM
By DANIEL J. CHACÓN
A bill to repeal a half-century-old law that criminalizes abortion in New Mexico cleared its first committee hearing Monday after emotional and sometimes rousing testimony from people on opposite sides of the contentious issue.
On a 5-3 party-line vote, the state Senate’s Health and Public Affairs Committee endorsed the legislation following a three-hour virtual hearing that started about two hours late because of technical problems.
The bill, which failed two years ago when a group of more moderate or conservative-leaning Democrats were in office and joined with their Republican colleagues to vote down the measure, will head to the Senate Judiciary Committee next.
“Every pregnancy is unique and complex, making a decision to not continue with pregnancy difficult,” said state Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, a Health and Public Affairs Committee member and one of the primary sponsors of the proposed repeal.
“Each decision… is personal,” she added. “We must respect and support those who have to make such a decision and to take politics and the law out of it.”
Several people who testified against the bill raised concerns about a lack of “conscience protections” for health care providers, which Sen. Gregg Schmedes, who is a doctor, said could drive medical professionals out of the state and threaten New Mexicans’ access to health care.
“When we see people getting fired from hospitals because of conscience issues, is it reasonable for a New Mexico doctor to be a little bit afraid of, ‘Could that happen to me if Senate Bill 10 passes?’” he said.
Conscience protection allows a provider to object to a practice based on moral or religious grounds.
“The way that I interpret this bill is that you are forcing doctors and nurses to participate in abortion against their will,” added Schmedes, a Republican from Tijeras.
It was a concern echoed by health care workers, including a certified nurse midwife who said she views abortion “as the murder of healthy babies.”
“Imagine that your job duties suddenly changed to include performing murder,” she said. “What would you do? I cannot morally go through with that.”
Supporters of the bill disputed the notion.
“As [a board certified obstetrician gynecologist] practicing for more than a decade, I have never met a health provider who has been forced to provide any health care they oppose, not even a circumcision,” said Lisa Hofler, who also is an executive officer of the New Mexico section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which she said supports the repeal.
The state statute is unenforceable because of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that found overly restrictive state government regulations of abortion unconstitutional. But proponents of the bill expressed urgency in repealing the measure amid concerns the U.S. Supreme Court will weaken or overturn the ruling with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett giving conservatives a wide majority on the bench.
State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, said the bill would ensure that abortion remains “accessible, safe and legal” in New Mexico.
“When I was growing up during the period of pre-Roe v. Wade, friends and relatives of mine didn’t have access to safe and legal abortions,” she said during a virtual news conference Monday ahead of the hearing.
“Many women suffered needless injury or even death, and if our 1969 abortion ban remains on the books when Roe v. Wade falls, it will pose a threat to the health, well-being and the autonomy of women and pregnant people,” she said. “We won’t go back to those times.”
Ferrary also said the bill would treat women as individuals with their own set of circumstances and medical needs.
“This legislation will make sure health care is decided by science and medicine, rather than politics,” she said.
SB 10, introduced on the session’s opening day last week, went all the way to the Senate floor in 2019 but failed when eight Democrats joined all 16 Republican senators in voting to keep the anti-abortion law on the books. Six of those Democrats are no longer in office, giving proponents of the measure more hope that it’ll be signed into law this year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who also has made the repeal one of her legislative priorities.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth noted that 25 members of the Senate Democratic caucus have signed on in support of the bill.
“That shows how far we’ve come with this legislation,” he said, adding the controversial issue was “front and center” during the primary last year during races in which several Democrats who voted against the bill in 2019 faced challenges from more progressive candidates who won election.
“I am incredibly honored to help shepherd this very important legislation through the Senate and then through the House and up to the governor,” Wirth said. “It’s time that we take this antiquated law passed in 1969 off the books, and it’s time for politicians to stay out of women’s health care decisions. I look forward to getting this done.”
During Monday’s committee hearing, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, another Albuquerque Democrat and committee member, called the issue “very difficult”.
“My mother is a santera. She’s a Catholic daughter, and she thinks abortion is a sin,” Sedillo Lopez said. “However, she does not think it is the government’s business.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.