March 3, 2017

Partisan tensions rise after Dems table ‘born alive’ bill

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

On controversial abortion bills, Democratic legislators have had a tendency this year to hear prolonged, passionate testimonies and debates—then quickly vote to table the bills.

That happened again Thursday afternoon, when the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee devoted two hours to a controversial bill on what anti-abortion advocates call “born alive” infants.

Several people testified in both support and opposition to the bill. Soon, Reps. Bob Wooley and Monica Youngblood, Republicans from Roswell and Albuquerque, respectively, asked lengthy questions of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.

Then the Democrats on the committee tabled the bill without debating it themselves.

Though two other bills to restrict abortion access were scheduled for the same committee, Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, who chairs the committee, adjourned before hearing them. Alcon said the committee would not have time to fully hear the other bills because the House of Representatives was scheduled to meet in 40 minutes.

The committee hearing took place on the House floor because of the interest in the legislation.

Youngblood objected, asking if people who came to testify for the other bills could do so.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” Alcon said. “I cannot control the clock. We are adjourned.”

Montoya’s bill would have defined an infant as “born alive” when showing signs of life through a heartbeat, an umbilical pulse or muscle movements, regardless of how it was born, including after an abortion procedure. The bill would have then mandated medical intervention on these infants, except if the care is not necessary, risky to the infant’s life or “will do no more than temporarily prolong the act of dying when death is imminent.”

Under the bill, doctors and medical providers who don’t perform such treatment are subject to a first degree felony. Anyone with knowledge of the medical inaction under the bill must report it to law enforcement.

The bill would have also required the state Department of Health (DOH) and Children, Youth and Services Department (CYFD) to establish a task force that would send caseworkers to monitor all abortion providers in the state.

Advocates who spoke in favor of the bill, many of them from anti-abortion advocacy groups and religious organizations, said it did not infringe on a woman’s right to have an abortion. Those who spoke against the bill portrayed it as an obstruction between providers and patients and a cynical attack on abortion providers.

“This is a gross interference between a practitioner and a woman and her family,” Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), said during public comment. “We already have a [state] board of medicine to assure these things won’t happen and that, if they do happen, [medical providers] will be punished.”

Sarah Coffey, an attorney with the Southwest Women’s Law Center, listed other government agencies with oversight on medical practices, like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“This legislation is an unnecessary tactic to scare and vilify abortion providers in our state,” Coffey said.

Then there’s the question of whether such “born alive” scenarios actually occur. Proponents of the legislation cited Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was found guilty in 2012 for botched abortions that resulted in the deaths of three infants.

Montoya also cited CDC numbers reporting “almost 1,400 self-reported incidents showing signs of life after an abortion procedure.” Yet Politifact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times that ranks the accuracy of political statements, has ranked similar claims about CDC statistics as “false.” Instead, the CDC numbers cited are based on the “other” category in the agency’s collection of perinatal deaths, which includes infants who die of conditions like heart problems, according to Politifact.

Elisa Martinez, executive director of New Mexico Alliance for Life, read a statement from Melissa Ohden, an Iowa-based anti-abortion activist who says she survived an abortion attempt during her birth. Montoya read a statement from a woman who gave birth describing a similar scenario.

Medical providers dispute such incidents are widespread. Earlier this year, ACOG described the term “born alive” to NM Political Report as “medically inaccurate” and stated that “ob-gyns don’t perform abortions if they determine the fetus is viable.” In 2013, 38 attorneys general and 32 health departments around the country investigated whether such “born alive” incidents occur. They found that it  happened with the Gosnell incidents but reported no evidence of it happening elsewhere.

Other controversies with Montoya’s bill revolved around who would monitor clinics where abortions take place to enforce the proposed “born alive” laws. Montoya’s bill would require the new state task force between DOH and CYFD to handle this duty. But Karen Whitlock, a lobbyist with the National Association of Social Workers New Mexico, testified that CYFD employees are “not trained to inspect medical facilities.”

Last month, Democrats on a Senate committee that heard a bill to bar abortions after 20 weeks or more into a pregnancy were similarly tight-lipped during debate before voting to table that bill. Only Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, spoke at length during that debate, while the chair and vice chair of that committee—Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque—did not speak. Republicans also didn’t debate during that hearing.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Albuquerque, bemoaned Alcon’s action to adjourn the committee hearing Thursday just an hour later on the House floor.

“The public was not given a chance to hear testimony and were not told when these bills would be potentially heard [next],” Harper told the body. “I believe this to be an abuse of the process by the Democrat-controlled committee.”

A caucus meeting for House Republicans also delayed the start of the Thursday committee meeting by nearly an hour after scheduled starting time.