March 3, 2016

Supreme Court abortion decision will impact NM

United States Supreme Court

As the country’s highest court decides whether to uphold a controversial Texas law restricting abortion access, New Mexico advocates on both sides of the issue await the impact of the decision.

The Texas law, known as HB2, requires all abortions be performed in hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers and all facilities that practice surgical abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital located within 30 miles. Twenty-two of Texas’ 41 abortion clinics have closed since the state passed HB2 in 2013. Aside from El Paso, no abortion clinics currently operate in the entire western half of the country’s second-largest state.

Because of this, many abortion rights advocates argue that HB2 has already impacted New Mexico and that a U.S. Supreme Court decision to keep the law could create a new precedent.

“If this law is upheld by Supreme Court, we know that more people in our opposition will have the political capital to continue to introduce restrictions like this in other states, and New Mexico is no different,” Tannia Esparza, executive director of Young Women United, which supports abortion rights, said in an interview.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case Wednesday challenging the Texas law, arguing it unconstitutionally restricts women’s access to abortions. During arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller downplayed the impact HB2 has had on abortion access and even cited New Mexico clinics as a reason why.

During arguments, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Keller how many women in Texas would be located more than 100 miles from an abortion clinic. Keller responded with 25 percent of the state but quickly added that the number may be high because it didn’t take into account women living close to New Mexico clinics.

The liberal justice countered that it didn’t make sense for Texas to consider the New Mexico clinics a legitimate option because they aren’t held to the same medical standards put forth in HB2. The ambulatory surgical centers that HB2 requires abortions to be performed in, for example, mandate wider hallways, larger operating rooms and more anesthesia resources than typical clinics.

Tara Shaver, spokeswoman for Protest ABQ, which opposes abortion rights, calls laws like this “common sense.”

In the 2015 legislative session, she testified in favor of a bill by Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, that would have required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile radius, much like part of HB2 does. Brandt’s bill died in committee.

“When we try to get bills like that passed, we try to look for the best interests of women,” Shaver said in an interview.

“Obviously we’re hoping that the Supreme Court rules in our favor,” she added.

Such legislation is predicated on arguments that abortions are dangerous to women. Studies from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, have ranked abortion procedures as the lowest-risk pregnancy outcome and listed odds of risk of death from a procedure at 1 in 100,000.

Such legislation can also make an impact outside of the state it becomes law in.

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of NM Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said her office last year helped provide resources for 18 women from Texas who traveled across state lines for procedures.

“We’re able to offer them a safe place to stay while they’re here and a supportive networks of people of faith,” Lamunyon Sanford said.

Many of the women who call Lamunyon Sanford’s office don’t end up making it to New Mexico, she said, because they lack the resources. So far this year, Lamunyon Sanford said five of 18 women who called her office for help didn’t keep their appointments. The numbers aren’t limited to Texas residents; Lamunyon Sanford said five of the 18 were from Texas.

Upholding the law, advocates argue, would only escalate this pattern.

With the Supreme Court split 4-4 on liberal and conservative ideological grounds since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month, analysts are predicting two possible outcomes for the case—the justices split the decision 4-4 or Justice Anthony Kennedy, who upheld Roe v. Wade’s precedent in 1992 but voted twice to ban partial birth abortions, joins the liberal justices in striking down the law. Kennedy voted with the liberal justices to put a temporary stay on the Texas law last summer.

If the Court rules a split decision on the case, it would uphold the lower court’s ruling, which upheld most of HB2, until a ninth justice is confirmed. At that time, the case could be brought back before the court.

Senate Republicans have vowed to block any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court and want to wait for the next president to nominate a replacement for Scalia. This would leave the high court with an eight-person panel for 11 months.

Obama said he will nominate potential justices anyway.