Lawmakers are poised to debate another contentious topic halfway through an already-polarized legislative session.
Thursday morning, the House Health Committee is scheduled to hear a bill aimed at addressing late-term abortions. Specifically, the measure would require emergency medical care for any infant born showing any sign of life, which would include breathing, a heartbeat, a pulse in an umbilical cord or muscle movement.
Update: Public comment on the bill took so long that the committee delayed discussion and voting on the legislation until a future hearing. Story continues as originally written below.
The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington and Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, also makes a legal definition for “born alive” as an infant showing those signs of life, regardless of how it was born, including through an abortion procedure.
Any physician who doesn’t perform emergency medical procedures to keep such an infant alive would be subject to a first degree felony if the infant dies. A failure to care for the infant that doesn’t result in death would subject the doctor to a second degree felony. The bill also subjects mothers of “born alive” infants that aren’t cared for to civil penalties.
The bill also gives “born alive” infants the same legal protections as full persons in New Mexico.
Though the current legislative session is budget-only, Gov. Susana Martinez last week authorized the bill as germane.
Montoya told NM Political Report the bill is meant to protect children accidentally born and still alive after late-term abortion procedures.
“We’re not sure necessarily what’s taking place in particular in late-term abortions,” he said. “So we’re just wanting to make sure that in New Mexico, and in the United States, we don’t have anything that allows for a child being left to die without care.”
Montoya cited the infamous case of Kermit Gosnell, an abortion provider in Philadelphia who was convicted of murder in 2013 for the death of three infants in botched abortions.
Evidence of this as a wider problem, however, is unsupported.
Montoya argued that his bill’s intent is to “make sure that if a child is born alive … the state has an interest in making sure their child is not abused.”
“This doesn’t change any woman’s right to seek an abortion,” he said. “It doesn’t stop a single abortion from taking place.”
Albuquerque is home to a health clinic that practices abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy. Previous attempts to end late-term abortion in the city, including a 2013 citywide ballot initiative, failed.
The legislation also goes beyond abortion. It mandates health care intervention on “born alive” infants born naturally, through induced labor and through cesarean section and “expulsed or extracted from the child’s mother,” according to the bill.
The bill calls for a task force established by the state Department of Health (DOH) and Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to monitor whether “born alive” infants are being cared for.
CYFD estimates it would need at least three employees to make monthly monitors of every health clinic that performs abortions to enforce the bill’s requirements, according to an analysis of the measure by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). DOH estimates it would have to dedicate at least two employees at a cost of $75,000 total a year to work on the task force.
The LFC analysis also says the bill lacks exemptions in cases of rape and incest and infants with “life-threatening abnormalities.”
“On some occasions, parents want to hold and comfort their severely malformed infants while dying is occurring,” the analysis reads. “This bill, if enacted, would appear to prohibit the medical care staff from allowing that to occur if any of the signs of life listed were present.”
The bill does offer an exception for providing care for infants that “would do nothing more than temporarily prolong the act of dying.” Such exceptions, Montoya said, would be when “death is imminent.”
Sandra Penn, a retired family physician who practiced in New Mexico and Hawaii throughout her career, called the bill “unnecessary, unconscionable and inappropriate.” She said the bill would force physicians to choose between avoiding a prison term and giving their patients the best medical care.
“It criminalizes doctors for giving good care, for taking care of their patients,” Penn said in an interview.
Politicians, she said, have no right making medical decisions for patients and physicians, whom she emphasized are already heavily regulated by medical boards and examiners.
“You’re trying to make a one-size-fits-all decision,” Penn said,” and every woman, every pregnancy is unique.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico also criticized the bill part of a wider attempt of “chipping away at reproductive rights in the states and around the country.”
“We oppose any legislation that ultimately aims to undermine the reputations of New Mexico abortion providers, dedicated professionals who provide high quality, compassionate care for women and families in our state,” ACLU-NM spokeswoman Rachael Maestas said in a statement.