February 9, 2016

Senate panel rejects late-term abortion bills

Joey Peters

An hours-long debate over legislation that would bar late-term abortions in New Mexico led to the same fate as last year—a Senate committee party line vote against the measures.

Abortion rights advocates spoke against both bills.

Joey Peters

Abortion rights advocates spoke against both bills.

The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 5-4 to table two bills by Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, that would have banned surgical abortion procedures on viable fetuses at 20 weeks of gestation or more. One of the bills defines fetal viability as “when the life of the unborn child may be continued indefinitely by natural or artificial life-supportive systems.”

Related Story: Doritos part of abortion debate in Senate committee

Albuquerque is home to an abortion provider that practices the procedure into the third trimester of pregnancy.

Sharer passed out pictures of his granddaughter Scarlett, who was born premature, to committee members during his presentation. He asked committee members what if Scarlett’s mother today was diagnosed with a terrible disease, evoking common arguments from pro-abortion rights advocates that late-term abortion procedures often involve pregnant women whose lives are in danger.

“Does that mean a doctor can cut up her heart and little lungs, little eyes, little liver, because her mother is ill?” Sharer, a lawmaker prone to hyperbole, asked.

“Six-month old babies can be a pain,” he continued. “What if mom simply doesn’t want her anymore? Does that qualify Scarlett as trash? Is that a decision between her mother and her trash collector?”

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, took offense to supporters of the bill calling abortion the “quick and easy” route and added that he trusts women to make ethical and moral decisions.

“I don’t think anyone here of good will would say that abortion is the quick and easy decision,” Candelaria said.

Though the current legislative session is budget-only, Gov. Susana Martinez made the abortion bills germane. She also allowed debate on an abortion House bill that suffered a similar fate last weekend.

Throughout debate, some lawmakers questioned key elements of testimony from Sharer’s expert witnesses. Among them was a statement from Elisa Martinez, executive director of New Mexico Alliance for Life, that Albuquerque voters support banning late-term abortion by a 54 percent to 39 percent margin.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, interjected. “Didn’t we just have an election on that?”

Ortiz y Pino was referring to a 2013 Albuquerque ballot measure to ban late-term abortion rejected by voters  55 percent to 45 percent.

“The ballot was long and confused people,” Martinez responded.

Language on that ballot question, titled the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance,” delved into 12 sections.

She also blamed defeat to Planned Parenthood contributing $1 million to defeat the 2013 ordinance. Steve Allen, public policy director with American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told committee members that several groups and people beyond Planned Parenthood banded together to defeat the measure.

“I want to be very clear that when this has come to voters, they spoke loud and clear,” Allen said.

Later pressed by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, Martinez clarified that her numbers came from an Albuquerque Journal poll on the city’s late-term abortion support conducted in the lead-up to the 2013 election.

“You would rather ignore the election and go to some poll?” O’Neill asked her.

When Martinez again mentioned that the wording of the question during the election confused people, O’Neill asked her if she was saying that Albuquerque voters were “too stupid” to understand what they were voting on.

“No, you just said that,” Martinez said.

Another point of contention came after Mary Rose Turner, a retired anesthesiologist who also acted as an expert witness on the bills, repeated that both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) both recommend against late-term abortion procedures.

The AMA language on this issues reads that the organization “recommends that abortions not be performed in the third trimester except in cases of serious fetal anomalies incompatible with life. Although third-trimester abortions can be performed to preserve the life or health of the mother, they are, in fact, generally not necessary for those purposes.”

ACOG’s position on the issue states it “is opposed to abortion of the healthy fetus that has attained viability in a healthy women.” ACOG further states that viability “is a medical determination” and “may vary with each pregnancy and is a matter for the judgement of the responsible care provider.”

Some lawmakers also criticized the expert witnesses for leaving out another sentence of ACOG’s position on abortion that opposes “unnecessary regulations that limit or delay access to care” and dub “the intervention of legislative bodies into medical decision making” as “inappropriate, ill-advised and dangerous.”

“I thought a lot of testimony from your witnesses was incredibly misleading,” Ortiz y Pino told Sharer.

The bills are likely dead for the remainder of the legislative session.

Update: Added language by Sen. Jacob Candelaria that was omitted from the original story.