The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion rights Monday and struck down a Louisiana law in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, but the “win” could be short-lived, say abortion rights advocates. The 5-4 decision brought an end to the legal battle over whether Louisiana’s 2014 law, that forced abortion providers in that state to obtain admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, is constitutional. The court, through Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion, noted that the Louisiana law poses a “substantial obstacle,” to women seeking abortion, offered no significant health-related benefits nor showed evidence of how the law would improve the health and safety of women. But, Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the more liberal wing of the court, wrote a concurrence in which he made clear he only voted in favor of June Medical Services because of precedent. The court decided an almost identical case involving a Texas Law four years ago with Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
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.
When New Mexico women are in a crisis and need to terminate a pregnancy, all too often they must drive hundreds of miles to reach a clinic that provides abortion. Clinics that provide abortions are only located in or around the three largest cities in New Mexico. While some obstetric and gynecological doctors as well as some general practitioners will perform an abortion privately, the vast majority of abortions are provided in specific clinics, Dr. Eve Espey, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, told NM Political Report.
When women seek an abortion, they are often in a time of crisis, she said. With more than one million women living in New Mexico, such limited resources for abortion services impacts a significant portion of women who are child-bearing age in the state. The problem disproportionately affects low-income women, rural women and women of color, Espey said.
During a sit-down earlier this month in the sparse Albuquerque administrative office for Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, CEO Vicki Cowart wondered aloud if the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision had lulled much of the public into taking legal abortion for granted. Here in New Mexico, abortion access has been solidly maintained by decades of activism by rights proponents and their collaborations with supportive elected officials. “Two generations of women have grown into adults with this not being an issue,” said Cowart. Yet two generations of women have seen gradual rollbacks in abortion rights and access in many other states across the country, where anti-abortion activists intent on ending the practice have been doggedly, methodically successful. Read this story’s companion piece, “NM state law, the U.S. Supreme Court and abortion access” here.
This week in the Legislature may see some debate regarding abortions and whether or not doctors should have a role in family discussions. Earlier this month, Gov. Susana Martinez outlined her legislative priorities in her State of the State address. In addition to presenting her six-point-plan to bolster the state’s economy, she also called for legislators to tackle certain issues during the 30-day legislative session. She encouraged them to pass bills related to education reform and expanded criminal penalties. Legislators have introduced a handful of bills related to abortion, but she skirted the issue in her speech.
An announcement from Pope Francis declaring that all Catholic priests can continue to forgive women who have had abortions seems to be more symbolic and less canonical—at least in the United States. In an apostolic letter, or a formal decree, this week, Francis called on Catholic priests to continue forgiving women who have abortions after the Year of Mercy ended. “There is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father,” Francis wrote. In New Mexico, a state with a heavily Catholic population, some welcomed the developments. But Catholics and other religious people who support abortion rights said the Church should further reform its stance on abortion rights.
Former Texas state Senator and new liberal icon Wendy Davis spoke to activists and politicians in Albuquerque Wednesday about women’s reproductive rights and healthcare. Davis’ celebrity status among progressive politicos was evident when former New Mexico state Representative Liz Thomson expressed her excitement for meeting Davis. “I’m like a kid meeting Beatles,” Thompson said as she introduced Davis to the group. Thomson is running to reclaim her state House seat. Davis spoke to the group of about 30 people about her experience in the Texas state Senate her filibuster of a law that would eventually limit women’s health clinics.
A U.S. congressional panel is planning on subpoenaing two Albuquerque health clinics that practice abortions as part of an investigation into allegations of selling fetal tissue for money. Thursday night, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, accused the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque-based Southwest Women’s Options of not cooperating with her Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives panel’s investigation into those allegations. In a press release, Blackburn said “these organizations have compelled our panel to subpoena these documents in order to acquire information that is vital to the completion of our work.”
“Without these subpoenas, the American people and the House itself would be left to speculate about what is going on in the fetal tissue industry,” Blackburn said. Southwest Women’s Options, which is one of just a few clinics in the nation that practices abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy, contends it’s been fully cooperative with the congressional panel. “We have formally responded this afternoon to its information request, as we previously arranged,” Jessica R. Hertz, an attorney for Southwest Women’s Options, said in a statement to NM Political Report.
Rhetoric on abortion heated up in 2015 after anti-abortion advocates leaked videos of Planned Parenthood officials and Robert Dear violently attacked a clinic in Colorado Springs. But whether the emotional debate comes to bills at the legislative session later this month and next isn’t yet known. Measures impacting abortion rights face odds this year because the upcoming session is focused on the state budget. Gov. Susana Martinez has the sole authority to allow any legislation not related to the state budget to be heard this year. So far, only state Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, has confirmed publicly that she asked Martinez to allow the Legislature to hear a bill that would ban abortion procedures after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Earlier this month, there was a nationwide push to protest against Planned Parenthood. It was the second national call to action in the last two months. Since July, anti-abortion activists have been calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood after short, highly-edited portions of a series of videos insinuated that the organization sold and profited from fetuses. The CEO and President of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains was in Albuquerque on Friday and New Mexico Political Report sat down with her to talk about what her organization does and what would happen if they were defunded. Vicki Cowart, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, told New Mexico Political Report there has been some misunderstanding when talking about Planned Parenthood and funding.