March 6, 2019

House panel votes down abortion bills

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Matthew Reichbach

A legislative committee on Tuesday blocked a bill that would have restricted late-term abortions in New Mexico and ensured that minors seeking an abortion obtain parental support.

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee also voted to stop a bill that would allow hospitals and medical professionals to opt out of performing an abortion for moral or religious reasons stalled in the committee.

The 3-2 votes fell along party lines in both cases, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans.

The action came as no surprise, given the House of Representatives’ recent support for House Bill 51, which would repeal an unenforceable 50-year-old law that made it a fourth-degree felony to perform an abortion in New Mexico. That measure cleared the House on a 40-29 vote, with six Democrats joining Republicans in opposition.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has voiced her support for that bill.

In some ways the two bills debated Tuesday were Republican attempts at counter-punching. In doing so, they once again spotlighted the political, moral and religious divide that exists over the question of who should have the final say in deciding whether a woman should have an abortion — the state or the individual.

House Bill 600, co-sponsored by Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and four other Republican lawmakers, would only allow late-term abortions — those performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy — in cases involving a medical emergency.

It would also require licensed physicians to ensure that minors requesting an abortion provide written support from a parent or guardian.

House Bill 608, introduced by Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, and three other Republican legislators, would allow doctors, nurses and other medical providers to refuse to perform an abortion if it clashes with their personal, religious or moral beliefs.

The testimony during the hearing for both bills often became emotional. Advocates for the bills argued that late-term abortions endanger the mother and the unborn and said no medical professional should be forced to perform an abortion.

Opponents said the final decision to have an abortion should reside with the woman and that allowing a hospital to turn away a woman seeking an abortion would set a dangerous precedent.

Montoya himself got caught up in the energy of the debate. At one point his voice began to choke as he told the committee of impregnating his wife before they were married and deciding, despite the option of abortion, to marry her because “it wasn’t the child’s fault.”

When one of his sons told him that he too had impregnated his girlfriend, Montoya said he asked him, “When are you getting married?”

The nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which researches and advocates for reproductive rights, says 43 states prohibit some abortions after a certain point in the pregnancy cycle.

But abortions taking place after 20 weeks of pregnancy account for a fairly small share of the total number performed in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, there were 638,169 legal abortions performed in 2015, with just 1.3 percent taking place after 20 weeks. 

The Guttmacher Institute also reports that 37 states require that abortion providers notify parents about a minor patient’s plan to have an abortion. And of those states, 21 require parental permission.

Similar bills looking to place such parameters on abortion procedures have come before the New Mexico Legislature before and failed.

Montoya said he is not going to give up.

“I will bring this legislation back year after year after year after year,” he said.