January 28, 2021

Bill to decriminalize abortion passes House committee

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The House Health and Human Services Committee approved a bill that would decriminalize abortion by a vote of 8 to 3, including one Republican who crossed the aisle.

State House Rep. Phelps Anderson, a Republican from Roswell, sided with the seven Democrats on the committee who voted yes to HB 7. Just before the bill went to vote, Anderson expressed some of his views.

“Many people who have spoken to me have expressed strong opinions but I find myself saying I’m not sure one voting yes or no changes anything that is very important to me and, secondly, the issues that have been raised are not encompassed within this bill,” Anderson said.

HB 7 will, if it passes the full New Mexico Legislature, repeal a law written in 1969. The law bans abortion except for cases of incest, rape, the life of the patient or severe mental or physical problems for the fetus. The law is not enforceable because of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.

The New Mexico law, as it was written, expected abortions to take place in a hospital setting and the abortion patient would be required to go before a special commission to make an appeal. If the special commission approved the abortion, the medical professionals could still refuse care.

Any physician who performed an abortion outside of that law, should Roe v. Wade be overturned by the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, would be guilty of a fourth degree felony.

Related: New Mexico’s 1969 abortion law was one in a long line of laws restricting access

The vast majority of abortions currently take place in clinics and the regulation established in 1969 is not how medical care is performed currently, reproductive rights experts have said.

The committee hearing, which considered other health-related bills before turning its attention to HB 7, lasted 5.5 hours. The debate around the abortion bill took up 3.5 hours. Just as with the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee meeting on Monday, when the parallel bill  SB 10 passed by a 5-3 vote, impassioned speeches from both sides of the debate took up considerable time.

Related: Abortion ban repeal bill clears first hurdle Monday

Together the two bills are called the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act.

The majority of the public comment against HB 7 centered around the issue of medical professionals who want a refusal clause amended to the bill. Several medical professionals who called in said they would be forced to leave the state or their profession if the bill passes.

Several medical professionals also spoke on behalf of the bill, citing patient care that is too complex and personal for Legislators to legislate.

Several New Mexico medical professional organizations are in support of the bill, including the New Mexico Medical Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists New Mexico Chapter.

But, several Republican legislators took up the refusal clause issue and argued in favor of it. 

The New Mexico Uniform Decision Act provides medical professionals with the ability to refuse care. The New Mexico Uniform Decision Act states:

”A health-care provider may decline to comply with an individual instruction or health-care decision for reasons of conscience. A health-care institution may decline to comply with an individual instruction or health-care decision if the instruction or decision is contrary to a policy of the health-care institution that is expressly based on reasons of conscience and if the policy was timely communicated to the patient or to a person then authorized to make health-care decisions for the patient.”

One of the co-sponsors of the House bill, state Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, said that to add a refusal clause to HB 7 would “create two systems of care.” 

“One would be for those who seek abortion and the other would be for everyone else. It’s making sure we don’t treat abortion differently or that care is held to an entirely different standard than for any other patient,” Ferrary said.

State Rep. Stefani Lord, a Republican from Sandia Park, asked repeated questions about how abortion is covered financially and about abortions that happen later term. Because of the Hyde Amendment, a federal amendment passed every year by the U.S. Congress since the late 1970s, federal tax dollars cannot cover abortion care. Many reproductive rights experts call that racially charged since the amendment specifically affects Native Americans who rely on Indian Health Services for medical care.

State Medicaid dollars covers abortion care in the state for residents who qualify for Medicaid.

State Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, said she could not discuss hypothetical situations with Lord regarding abortions that occur later in the term, but reproductive rights experts have said that people who seek abortions later in pregnancy are almost always gut-wrenching decisions made when there is little to no hope for the life of the fetus or the patient is in grave medical danger.

Cadena told Lord that HB 7 repeals “dangerous statutes.”

“In New Mexico today the current status is access to abortion is safe and legal,” Cadena said. “We will not be changing the status quo. We will not be changing the parameters of abortion care.”