A bill to prevent discrimination for individuals seeking abortion care or gender-affirming care in New Mexico cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee by 7-3 on Friday.
HB 7, Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care, is intended to protect individuals who seek abortion care and gender-affirming care from discrimination by any public body. Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Albuquerque, is the primary sponsor of the bill. The bill will head to the House Judiciary Committee next.
The bill generated considerable public comment and committee debate. Questions came from three Republicans on the committee, Jenifer Jones of Deming, Stefani Lord of Sandia Park and Harlan Vincent of Ruidoso Downs. All three voted against the bill.
Jones, Lord and Vincent all expressed concern that the bill would force any public body, such as acequias, to provide abortion care or gender-affirming care.
Serrato and her expert witnesses affirmed, repeatedly, that the bill would not change anyone’s scope of work and that abortion providers and gender-affirming providers have standards of care.
Lord called the language in the bill “vaguely worded.” Jones called the language in the bill “broad.”
Ellie Rushforth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, who served as one of Serrato’s expert witnesses on the bill, said that the language in the bill “is modeled after the New Mexico Civil Rights Act.”
“It does not create a conflict [with current statutes], it creates a definition and guidelines to be used in enforcement of the bill,” Rushforth said.
Jones created hypothetical scenarios of a schoolteacher or a school nurse who, while talking to a five-year-old student, might learn the student wants to change their gender. Lord ran through several hypotheticals, such as a rural doctor potentially being forced to provide an abortion or gender-affirming care. Vincent asked what if someone approached a fire station seeking abortion care or gender-affirming care.
Serrato and Rushforth said multiple times that discussing the bill in the form of hypothetical scenarios was difficult. Serrato said the bill is designed to prevent a patchwork of care across New Mexico. Both Serrato and Rushforth emphasized that the bill would not change anyone’s scope of work and that healthcare providers are allowed religious and moral exemptions from providing certain types of care.
Dr. Molly Mcclain, a gender-affirming care physician at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, also spoke as an expert witness on the bill. She said that one study found that of nearly 28,000 gender expansive individuals, 41 percent had attempted to kill themselves. In the general population, that number is 4.6 percent.
“I want to highlight the fact that gender-affirming youth have the highest mortality rate in the world. We have to remember how important it is to protect vulnerable children,” she said.
Mcclain said that in a recent study, 3.2 percent of New Mexican children identified as gender expansive and when the number who identify as unsure of their gender are added, that puts 18,000 children in New Mexico who are at risk.
“Thirty-two percent tried to kill themselves in the past year,” Mcclain said.
Lord asked about the civil penalties associated with the bill.
If a district attorney or attorney general finds probable cause for discrimination by a public body against abortion care or gender-affirming care, the district attorney or attorney general may seek civil action in district court, according to the bill. The court may assess a civil penalty of $5,000 or actual damages, “whichever is greater.”
A person who has experienced discrimination in seeking abortion care or gender-affirming care may seek action in district court for “appropriate relief, including temporary, preliminary or permanent injunctive relief, compensatory damages or punitive damages.”
According to the Fiscal Impact Report, the bill allows individuals “subjected to prohibited actions of public bodies to take action in district court and receive monetary awards, to include reasonable attorney fees and costs.”
Clovis and Hobbs have passed anti-abortion ordinances, as have Roosevelt and Lea counties in efforts to regulate abortion at the local level. Those ordinances require a licensing requirement for abortion clinics and prohibit telehealth abortion, despite abortion being legal in New Mexico.
Serrato spoke to NM Political Report before the bill was filed and said that while the bill was not crafted in response to those ordinances, she said the bill would “address those actions,” and that individuals should not be fearful to seek the healthcare they need.
Serrato told the committee that it is “really important to remember, there are many people listening in today.”
“Trans youth and individuals seeking abortion care in counties where it’s discussed. It’s important they know they can thrive in their lives and seek healthcare in New Mexico,” she said.
Vincent brought two points of order to Health and Human Services Committee Chair Liz Thomson. He questioned her rule that committee members could not ask a second round of questions after already yielded the floor. Thomson said that rule of order was at the discretion of the committee chair.
Vincent brought up a second point of order in which he again questioned Thomson’s committee procedures.
“On page 20 of our committee books, it says the debate should not limit any committee member from being permitted to speak. Or the number of times the committee member wants to speak. Colleagues need to speak,” he said.
Thomson said “there have been a lot of hypotheticals that are not answerable.”
“We can’t say what will happen in any given situation,” she said.