June 19, 2023

A look back at what the last year has wrought

Bill Moree

Abortion rights sit in, Washington D.C. 2022

A week ago this coming Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade and upending nearly 50 years of precedent.

But the story really starts before June 24, 2022. Abortion is legal in New Mexico and remains so in part because advocates began working years ago to ensure that it would continue to be legal in the event the political makeup of the court changed. Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of  abortion fund provider New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said that in October of 2020, when the U.S. Senate confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, she knew “we would lose Roe.”

“We were anticipating it as far back as that. We started comparing it to a natural disaster, though this is a created disaster,” she said. “When a hurricane, fire, those kinds of things happen, you do your best to prepare but there’s no way to know the harm, what the consequences, what the damage is going to be until it happens.”

Members of the reproductive rights community have said that the effort to repeal a 1969 law in New Mexico that criminalized abortion began nearly a decade ago out of concern that the court would turn so conservative that Roe could be under threat. The 1969 law, which carried a fourth-degree felony as a penalty for abortion care providers, remained dormant for decades because of Roe but in 2021, the legislature repealed the antiquated law and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supported the effort, signed the repeal bill into law. Removing the dormant law from the criminal code ensured abortion remained legal when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito delivered his majority opinion on June 24, 2022.

Ellie Rushforth, reproductive rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said whether we talk about pre-Dobbs or post-Dobbs, “access to high quality reproductive healthcare was already hard in New Mexico.”

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“Many of us have been fighting for years, if not decades to change that,” she said.

But one impact of the Dobbs decision is that more people are aware and thinking about reproductive healthcare and the right to access it, Rushforth said.

“One important thing, more people than ever, including policy makers, elected officials and the average person on the street are seeing clearly now the risk and the attacks in a way that they may not have been so obvious before,” Rushforth said.

Standing up for bodily autonomy

The overturning of Roe galvanized some into forming new organizations devoted to reproductive and LGBTQ rights. Krista Pietsch, spokesperson for Eastern New Mexico Rising, talked to NM Political Report about how ENMR has grown from an informal protest that took place a week after Roe fell in parts of eastern New Mexico to a group close to 300 a year later. Pietsch said ENMR has raised money for a local domestic violence shelter, is hosting local events for Pride month and has started hosting monthly LGBTQ socials to facilitate an inclusive space.

“The community is here, it’s just been hiding for a while,” Pietsch said.

ENMR has also filed a brief with the state Supreme Court in support of New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s suit to stop some municipalities and counties’ anti-abortion ordinances. Despite abortion remaining legal in New Mexico, some municipalities and counties in eastern New Mexico began passing anti-abortion ordinances last fall and winter. Repeatedly, elected officials in those municipalities and counties have argued that a federal law, the Comstock Act, passed under President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, prohibits abortion medication and other abortion-related paraphernalia from being sent through the U.S. mail. Torrez sued.

Related: Professor questions merits of lawsuit seeking to weaken abortion rights law

ENMR has also shown up at public meetings to voice their dissent over the passage of those anti-abortion ordinances in their communities.

“This area of New Mexico basically had an abortion ban in place [before the fall of Roe] because there was no access at all. It’s really sad and we can tie it to ob/gyn care that is abysmal as well,” Pietsch said.

Pietsch talked to NM Political Report about an abortion she had prior to the fall of Roe.

“I’m very lucky…I had Fridays off [from work], a supportive partner who drove me; we had the funds to drive, a working vehicle, funds to stay in a hotel overnight and I don’t have children, so I didn’t have to think about childcare,” she said.

Pietsch said the overturning of Roe has created an existential threat to all whose right to bodily autonomy has come under attack. She said ENMR gets calls from individuals who need an abortion, find ENMR on the internet and ask for help because the individuals don’t know where else to turn. But, Pietsch said she thinks the overturning of Roe has galvanized individuals like herself into becoming politically active.

“We look at Washington now, it affects my day to day,” she said.

Taking a political stand is not easy. Pietsch said ENMR has been “called all kinds of names,” and she spoke of the toll of the verbal abuse. She also said “people are scared,” in parts of eastern New Mexico.

“A lot of people are afraid to be open about who they are. We have people come to us because of the fear. They don’t want to out themselves,” she said.

Standing up for inclusivity

Edgewood resident Adrian Chavez Sr., defines himself as a Christian.

“I don’t read the same interpretation of the Bible [as anti-abortion individuals] do. I tend to lean more toward the approach ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ rather than tell my brother what to do,” Chavez said.

Chavez said he watched the Edgewood City Council meeting in April, when it voted in favor of an anti-abortion ordinance, and decided he would run for local office. The town of Edgewood passed the ordinance despite the fact that HB 7, which prohibits public bodies from discriminating against abortion care or gender-affirming care, passed the legislature and was signed into law by Lujan Grisham in March. 

But the town’s abortion ordinance is not enforceable by the town. It established what some call a “bounty scheme” by allowing individual residents to sue if they believe abortion medication is sent through the mail to an Edgewood resident.

“I spoke with my wife the next day. If I’m going to be in this community for the rest of my life, I want it to be all inclusive,” Chavez said.

Chavez said watching the town council meeting in April also led him to initiate an effort to recall the ordinance. He joined forces with other Edgewood residents interested in a recall and, together, they received over 400 signatures on a recall petition. Of those, 318 were valid. As a result, the town will have a special election by mail-in ballot from late July through August 22 to allow the residents of Edgewood to decide if the town should keep the ordinance or not.

Chavez said he likens the issue to “the right of individual freedom and democracy,” and he said he felt he would be a hypocrite if he didn’t take action. He said he has received what he called “colorful” responses to the recall but he said he’s also received an outpouring of support, including from some pastors in his community.

“I think this is a community issue. I don’t think it’s a right and left issue. Women should have the right to make decisions about their own bodily autonomy,” he said.

How did the state respond?

In less than a week after Roe fell, Lujan Grisham announced her first reproductive rights executive order. She would make two that summer.

The first one shielded abortion care providers from civil or criminal penalty from out-of-state forces for providing legal abortion in New Mexico. SB 13, known as the shield law, which codified Lujan Grisham’s executive order, passed the legislature, was signed by Lujan Grisham, and went into effect on Friday.

Lujan Grisham’s spokesperson, Caroline Sweeney, said via email that the state is “seeing the terrible impacts of the Dobbs decision play out every day, with the number of people traveling to the state for abortion care rising significantly and placing additional strain on the healthcare system.”

In August of last year, Lujan Grisham announced a second executive order and pledged $10 million toward a new abortion clinic to be built in Las Cruces. That pledge became part of the capital outlay bill and it, too, passed the legislature and was signed by Lujan Grisham. It went into effect on Friday.

“But while many states have moved backward, New Mexico will continue to protect and preserve the rights of all people to make decisions related to their bodies and their health,” Sweeney said.

The legislature also passed a number of additional bills that affect bodily autonomy, such as a bill that mandates that free menstrual products will be available in restrooms in all public schools in New Mexico. That bill also went into effect on Friday.

Rushforth called it a “culture shift.”

“There’s a through line in the fight for civil rights and civil liberties. The fight for civil liberties will never be won, as long as individuals’ very existence is threatened or attacked,” she said. 

What about people on the front line of abortion care?

Lamunyon Sanford said that, similar to other abortion fund providers and abortion clinics in the state, “we’ve been extremely busy,” since the fall of Roe.

“Of course, a lot of that is because of the [state] abortion bans put in place since Dobbs and they are increasing,” she said. “People have to travel to New Mexico.”

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains expanded its care in response to Dobbs and the increased need for abortion care. Adrienne Mansanares, chief executive officer and president of PPRM, told NM Political Report earlier this month that the organization began providing medication abortion at its Farmington clinic and opened a new brick-and-mortar clinic in Las Cruces. PPRM is also expecting to open a new and expanded clinic in Albuquerque in August, she said.

Related: Planned Parenthood clinics in New Mexico expand, offering medication abortion care at all locations

New clinics have opened up. Whole Women’s Health, which has clinics in a few other states but is most known for the clinics it operated in Texas, began considering New Mexico for a new home last year after Roe fell. Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and chief executive officer for Whole Women’s Health, likened providing abortion care in the U.S. as ‘human rights work.’

Related: Whole Women’s Health opens clinic in Albuquerque, calls providing abortion care in the U.S. ‘human rights work’

Lamunyon Sanford said she feels she has seen anti-abortion rhetoric to stigmatize and shame individuals seeking reproductive health care increasing since Roe fell.

But, NMRCRC has received more donations and volunteers than ever before. She said that before Roe fell, volunteers tended to find NMRCRC through referrals. Now, volunteers find them online and the organization has had to implement a vetting process to ensure the volunteers align with the organization’s values. NMRCRC volunteers escort abortion patients to clinics and help with travel to and from airports and hotels.

NMRCRC also expanded to Las Cruces late last year and became part of an effort to fly individuals in Texas to New Mexico for abortions. She said the numbers of individuals on the flights are smaller to decrease the chance of detection but the flights have increased, from alternate weeks to weekly trips.

Rushforth spoke of “the devastating physical and mental harm” for patients. Mansanares told NM Political Report that Colorado PPRM clinics have seen a 50 percent increase of New Mexican patients because of the long wait times caused by some states banning abortion, forcing out-of-state patients to seek care in New Mexico and other safe-haven states. 

Court battles began in the spring around the abortion medication mifepristone. The Supreme Court announced the drug would continue to be available until it takes up the issue, which isn’t expected until the court’s 2023-2034 term. The court’s whiplash decisions around mifepristone in April caused confusion and chaos for both providers and patients.

“We are in the middle of a catastrophic public health emergency and it is entirely manufactured,” Rushforth said.