March 5, 2017

House committee stalls another round of abortion bills

The New Mexico House of Representatives.

A panel of state lawmakers spent five hours Sunday hearing and debating two bills that would have restricted abortion access in New Mexico before tabling them on party lines.

At one point, state Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, bemoaned the predictability of the situation.

“I was going to ask some questions, but it’s futile,” he said to the sponsors of a bill to ban abortions after 20 or more weeks of pregnancy. “We all know how this committee is going to vote. This bill is going to die on a 3-2 vote.”

Some members of the public echoed this. New Mexico resident Gilbert Pino compared the situation to the 1993 comedy film Groundhog Day, which features Bill Murray repeating the same day over and over again.

Another member of the public encouraged Democrats on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee to vote in favor of the bill because it was likely already too late in the legislative session for the abortion ban bill to get all the way through both the House and the Senate and onto the governor’s desk.

Later in the day, the same committee rejected a bill that would have mandated all minors seeking abortions to notify their parents first.  The committee held the hearing for both bills on the House floor to accommodate for the large crowd.

Of the three Democrats on the committee, only Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, spoke during debate. She invoked her Catholic faith to explain her vote against the bill to ban abortions during 20 weeks or more of pregnancy.

“As an elected official, I really respect the right of our constituents to make the decisions they need to make to protect their families,” Roybal Caballero said. “My Catholic faith teaches me women and men have the right to make their own decisions based on the dictum of their own consciences. I respect life in all forms, and I firmly believe these very deep and personal, complex decisions must remain with the woman, her doctors, her family and her faith, and certainly not in the chambers of government.”

Her statement apparently perturbed Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester. During public testimony on the parental notification bill shortly after Roybal Caballero made her remarks, New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops Executive Director Allen Sánchez told lawmakers he had just gotten off the phone with Wester, who had a message to tell them.

“We must use our conscience, and he agrees with that, but it needs to be a formed conscience,” Sánchez said. “A lack of formed conscience can create havoc and problems. Especially when a public or elected person identifies themselves as Catholic and uses that to justify a vote for abortion, that person—and this is a teaching across across the whole Church—is themselves separating themselves.”

In both hearings, sponsors and supporters of the legislation downplayed the impact their bills would have on a woman’s legal right to seek and obtain an abortion. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, argued that her bill to ban abortions during the later stages of pregnancy “does not legislate against all abortions.” And Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, contended that his parental notification bill aimed to “inform parents for the child’s safety.”

The 20-week or more ban is introduced frequently in the state Legislature—the state Senate defeated a similar bill last month—and is aimed at Southwestern Women’s Options, an Albuquerque clinic that practices such types of abortions.

An attempt to ban doctors from performing abortions of 20 or more weeks of pregnancy through a citywide voting referendum in 2013 failed on a more than 10-point margin.

An obstetrician gynecologist who introduced herself as Dr. Palm and testified against the bill noted that fetal anomalies—or medical problems on a fetus inside the womb—sometimes aren’t detected until 24 weeks into pregnancies. Another obstetrician gynecologist described delivering a 22-week fetus in a “crashed C-section” that did not live. She said that assuming all fetuses 20 weeks or older are viable—or are likely to survive outside the womb—is a generalization.

Supporters of both bills spent hours testifying Sunday, echoing arguments from the bill’s sponsors.

Sometimes, the mood got emotional. A crowd in the gallery booed the committee after lawmakers voted to table the first bill. On the parental notification bill, some mentioned their own parenthood.

“The fact that my daughter could be in a room, alone, waiting for a procedure while I’m at Chipotle eating a burrito is unconscionable,” Beverly Cruz, who spoke in support of that bill, said.

In opposition, Albuquerque family doctor Sandra Penn read a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics arguing that there is no evidence to show that  parental notification improves medical care.

“There’s evidence that it may have an adverse effect and increase mental harm to the patient,” Penn said, reading from the AAP statement.

Planned Parenthood New Mexico Director of Education Persephone Wilson said her organization encourages women who seem coerced into getting abortions to postpone their meetings. Wilson added that 80 percent of minors already talk to parents or a trusted adult about abortion.

Victoria Torres, who testified as the mother of a teenage daughter, said she wanted her daughter to talk to whomever she feels most comfortable with seeking advice on such issues, even if it isn’t her mother.

“Please trust New Mexico families to make our own ways of communicating,” Torres said.

Isis Lopez, a University of New Mexico student, elaborated on this by explaining how she first talked to her grandmother about using contraceptives because she was not comfortable speaking about the issue with her parents.

Though several bills to restrict abortion access have seen debate during the 2017 legislative session, at least one remains. That’s a bill to require the University of New Mexico to report its fetal tissue research activities to the Legislative Finance Committee on a regular basis. Judging by its assignment in the House to four committees, and the fact that it hasn’t been heard yet with two weeks to go in the session, the bill will likely stall  just as the others did.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified and mischaracterized some statements from Persephone Wilson, the director of education for Planned Parenthood New Mexico.