March 15, 2019

Senate rejects repealing currently unenforceable anti-abortion law

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Eight Senate Democrats joined with Republicans Thursday evening to defeat a measure that would have removed a currently non-enforceable ban on abortion.

State Representatives Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, and Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, sponsored House Bill 51. which would repeal a 1969 state law which made both performing and receiving an abortion fourth-degree felonies, except with special permissions. The law is currently unenforceable because of the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision which federally recognized the right to have an abortion.

“We’re terribly disappointed,” Ferrary said. “You know if there is any change with Roe v. Wade that we’ll keep fighting to make sure that woman have the right to make decision.”

The bill previously passed the House on a 40-29 margin.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supported the bill, and said after the vote she was disappointed with the outcome.

“This old, outdated statute criminalizing health care providers is an embarrassment. That removing it was even a debate, much less a difficult vote for some senators, is inexplicable to me,” she said in a statement.

Democratic state Senators Pete Campos of Las Vegas, Carlos Cisneros of Questa, Richard Martinez of Española, George Muñoz of Gallup, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, Clemente Sanchez of Grants and John Arthur Smith from Deming voted against the bill, along with all 16 Republicans.  

Muñoz did not respond for comment saying he had a family emergency, with the death of his son’s horse.

Sanchez said while he is morally opposed to abortion, he cited the timing of the bill as why he voted against it and said that lawmakers should wait to see if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

“When it does, then we’ll worry about it. It’s still the law of the land,” he said.

One area of tension that came up in the debate on the bill throughout the session was the “conscience clause.” Federal and state statutes to protect doctor’s right to refuse to perform a procedure they morally oppose as long as it does not constitute an emergency.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had earlier approved an amendment that would leave the conscience clause in the section of the law to remain.

Even still, the bill died.

Ferrary said she was surprised at the final vote.

“We did expect more to be voting in favor and it didn’t turn out that way,” she said.

“There’s thousands of women across the state who really believe that we should provide the ability to make these kinds of decisions,” Ferrary said. “We’ll just keep organizing and fighting,”

And she said she didn’t believe the Legislature should wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

“We don’t want to wait until there’s a gap between when something might be rescinded or changed at the federal level,” she said. “It’s not something we need to wait for, it’s something we need to be proactive on.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on a letter in 2015, addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez that identified “pro-life” Democrats in the Senate who would support anti-abortion measures. Former-Sen. Phil Griego as well as Muñoz, Smith, Martinez, Cisneros, Sanchez and John Pinto of Gallup and Sanchez signed the letter.

Noreen Kelly, who advocated for the bill on behalf of Strong Families New Mexico in McKinley County, said they attempted to change the minds of lobbied senators, such as Pinto, who changed his vote, and Muñoz, who did not.

“Unfortunately Muñoz disappointed us, as women as a community,” Kelly said, her voice breaking. “Especially as Native women, in a position that is unsafe and already unable to get the healthcare they need.”