February 6, 2020

With a health care crisis under way, New Mexico could be critical for abortion access

Within three years, as many as 25 million women of reproductive age could live in states without a single abortion provider  – making New Mexico a critical state for women to travel for abortion care, say some abortion rights advocates.

Vicki Cowart, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains president and chief executive officer, calls the situation an “impending national health crisis.” She said Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains is getting ready for it.

“It could happen nearly under the radar. It’ll be profound for women in those states. We are getting ready to be the provider of these patients coming to us (in New Mexico) from everywhere,” Cowart told NM Political Report Wednesday.

Cowart and other Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains officials visited the state capitol mid-week as part of a fundraising campaign for local Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain chapters.

That women travel for an abortion, sometimes long distances, is not a new phenomenon.

New Mexicans who live in rural communities already travel sometimes hundreds of miles to access abortion care, say abortion rights advocates. The majority of those who seek an abortion already have children, which means they may have to find childcare as well as take time off from work and pay for expenses such as gas and overnight stays at a hotel. Abortion providers exist in only three places in New Mexico: Santa Fe, Albuquerque and the Las Cruces area.

Related: Access to abortion limited in New Mexico

But Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains officials say that within the next three years, abortion providers could close up shop completely in states considered hostile to abortion rights because of actions at the national level. Cowart said that for New Mexico that will mean more people will be traveling from out-of-state to seek care.

But that, too, is nothing new to New Mexico abortion providers. Cowart said there are days when the Albuquerque Planned Parenthood clinic is filled with out-of-state license plates in the parking lot.

“We’re sort of used to seeing travelers,” she said.

What’s being done

With this potential impending health crisis looming, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains is raising $85 million regionally with the primary goal for much of that money to go toward building a new Planned Parenthood clinic in Albuquerque, said Whitney Phillips, vice president of communications and brand experience for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Other ways in which Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains is planning for the potential of a significant increase in need is to increase staff training and to plan to expand its abortion care to a later gestational period.

Cowart says forcing people to travel across states will mean they will get abortions at later stages of a pregnancy. It will take longer for people to figure out where they can go get an abortion if no clinic exists in their state.

According to Cowart, the vast majority of abortions usually happen very early in pregnancy. Ivy Stern, board chair for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said people who usually seek abortion at a later stage are due almost entirely because of a very serious health problem.

Going later into pregnancy for an abortion will increase costs, and not just travel costs. Abortions in later stages of pregnancy generally start at $1,000 for the procedure and the cost goes up from there.

Phillips said Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains expects that there will be more people who will need help finding funds to cover costs.

“We never turn someone away,” Phillips said.

Cowart called New Mexico and Colorado, both states where people can currently travel for abortions at a later stage, “a little island.” 

“We’re preparing for the surge,” Stern said.

Why this is happening now

What Cowart and other officials with Planned Parenthood anticipate triggering such a change in the landscape is the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case June Medical Services LLC v. Gee, a case challenging a Louisiana law. The nine justices, five of whom are considered conservative and opposed to abortion rights, will hear that case in March.

The Louisiana law requires abortion care providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the provider.

The U.S. Supreme Court already ruled on a similar case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in 2016. In that instance, the highest court struck down the Texas law which required abortion providers to have admitting privileges and be located within 30 miles of a hospital. But not before the number of abortion providers dropped by more than half within two years after the Texas law passed, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Abortion rights activists say abortion is an extremely safe procedure and such laws do not help women but serve to close abortion providers by increasing expenses for the provider and creating a hostile environment for the provider to practice.

Cowart said Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains believes that the likely scenario is that this time the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the Louisiana law and that this will have a chilling domino effect, shuttering abortion clinics in states where abortion rights have been under threat by conservative lawmakers. Already in states such as Missouri and Mississippi, only one abortion clinic has been able to stay open.

“It’s dangerous to be a woman of reproductive age,” Cowart said.

Is New Mexico safe?

Some abortion rights advocates worry because New Mexico’s 1969 abortion ban is still on the books and an attempt to repeal that law failed last year.

Marianna Anaya, ProgressNow New Mexico’s* communications director, has previously expressed concern that the Louisiana case about to go before the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade.

Related: New billboards aim to start conversation about abortion access

Last month, 202 Republican members of Congress signed a friend of the court document asking the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade when hearing the Louisiana case.

During Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains’ fundraising events, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made brief remarks. She spoke of the effort to decriminalize abortion. 

“The second we have the votes in the senate, that antiquated, absolutely outrageous law is gone,” Lujan Grisham said at the Thursday morning fundraiser.

Some say that was a rallying cry to try to push the eight Democratic senators who voted against the repeal last year to signal a willingness to vote for it this year.

So far, Lujan Grisham hasn’t put this year’s version of the decriminalization bill onto a call. The session ends February 20.

 * ProgressNow New Mexico helps find funding for NM Political Report. No one at ProgressNow NM has any say in editorial decisions by NM Political Report, including in this story. 

This story was updated Friday at 6 p.m. to reflect the following corrections: Ivy Stern is the Board Chair of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, not of Planned Parenthood Vote NM and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains CEO and President Vicki Cowart’s last name was misspelled in some places, incorrectly, as Cowter.