Senate rejects repeal of unenforceable abortion law
By Andrew Oxford
An old, unenforceable New Mexico law that makes it a crime to perform an abortion will stay on the books.
The Senate on Thursday voted down legislation that would have repealed the 50-year-old statute, spurning calls from advocates and newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to protect abortion rights at the state level amid fear that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade could be overturned or undermined.
Eight Democrats joined all 16 Republicans in voting to retain the anti-abortion law. While the 24-18 vote does not change anything about existing law, it was still a political victory for advocates of restricting abortion.
It also demonstrated how divided Senate Democrats are on the issue and suggests the Legislature is likely to remain at an impasse when it comes to abortion laws, at least for the short term.
Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque carrying House Bill 51, argued the measure only safeguards rights that already exist under the law.
“This bill is about health care access for women,” Lopez told the Senate.
HB 51 would have repealed a law that makes it a fourth-degree felony to perform an abortion. The law also outlined the process for hospitals to create special boards that could hear requests from women who are victims of rape to undergo a legal abortion.
And the law included the only provision in a New Mexico statute that expressly allows a doctor to refuse to participate in an abortion on moral grounds.
State courts have already ruled much of the law unconstitutional. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, it is unenforceable.
But after President Donald Trump’s election and his series of appointments to the federal courts, advocates for abortion rights have sought to repeal the law.
“The provision of abortion care won’t change, but we know it’s at risk,” said Ellie Rushforth, reproductive rights counsel at the ACLU of New Mexico, which supported HB 51.
In turn, debate over the bill was not just about an arcane statute but about abortion itself.
Proponents and opponents alike packed committee hearings on the bill. Some told deeply personal stories, such as traveling to Mexico to get an abortion before the procedure was legal in the United States. Others raised concerns about what they view as the devaluation and disregard for life.
Both sides held rallies and delivered stacks of petitions to the governor’s office.
HB 51 cleared the House of Representatives, but it was unclear whether it had the support needed in the Senate A bloc of conservative Democrats in the Senate sometimes votes with the Republicans.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to keep the so-called conscience clause in the bill, ensuring medical professionals have the right to refuse to participate in an abortion.
Many expected a lengthy debate when the bill came up for a vote of the full Senate.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said in a speech invoking St. Antoninus that Catholics should feel free to vote for the bill.
“The importance of individual choice is what the church has always taught,” Ortiz y Pino said.
Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, countered that he did not know which Catholic Church others were talking about.
“Mine does not approve of abortion,” Ramos said,
“Vote your conscience,” he told the chamber.
But the debate did not last long.
Foreshadowing how confident some lawmakers must have been that the bill would go down to defeat, not a single Republican spoke on the issue.
Within an hour, the Senate defeated the bill.
Democrats who joined Republicans to stop the measure were Ramos and Sens. Pete Campos of Las Vegas; Carlos Cisneros of Questa; Richard Martinez of Española; George Muñoz of Gallup; Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces; Clemente Sanchez of Grants; and John Arthur Smith, of Deming.
Despite Democrats’ big wins in last year’s election, opponents of the bill argued the vote showed that abortion is not a simple issue in state politics.
“New Mexicans have spoken and expressed these concerns throughout the process and we need to have an honest discussion about those concerns,” said Elisa Martinez, president of New Mexico Alliance for Life, which opposed HB 51.
New Mexico has relatively few restrictions on abortion compared to other states. And while New Mexico had a Republican governor for the previous eight years, Susana Martinez said little about the issue, even as GOP colleagues in other states passed sweeping restrictions on the procedure.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has been more outspoken. She urged lawmakers in her State of the State Address to pass the bill.
After the Senate’s vote, the governor said: “This old, outdated statute criminalizing health care providers is an embarrassment. That removing it was even a debate, much less a difficult vote for some senators, is inexplicable to me.”
But many Senate Democrats are conservative when compared to their House colleagues. And many were blunt in the weeks running up to the vote that they believed HB 51 was unpopular in their districts.