It’s been three years since I began work for NM Political Report focused on politics and what are often referred to as “women’s issues.” It’s phrasing I reflexively shy away from, as there are few issues not relevant to women. Areas like reproductive health and access relate to everyone, regardless of background and gender identity—they’re relevant to every family, no matter their composition or belief systems.
Yet many public policies have disproportionate effects on women and families with children. Protections for pregnant workers, for example, were among the proposals I followed in 2015 and were among the many which failed to garner enough support from lawmakers. I also covered public policy and discourse related to abortion, which bears heavy baggage in simple utterance of the word. Then, the local atmosphere surrounding abortion felt both disconcertingly polarized and exhausted.
Anti-abortion activists praised the U.S. Department of Justice for sending several criminal referrals to the FBI with allegations that the University of New Mexico Hospital and Southwest Women’s Options conducted illegal activities related to fetal tissue donations. In a letter last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Stephen Boyd addressed concerns U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce raised in September. Pearce is New Mexico’s lone Republican member of the delegation. “This is a serious matter, and the Department takes these referrals seriously,” Boyd wrote to the congressman. “The Department has brought each of these referrals to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for review and any appropriate follow-up action.”
The issue goes back to a 2015 video that allegedly showed that Planned Parenthood profited from the sale of fetal tissue.
The chairwoman of a U.S. congressional panel wants New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate whether practices at two clinics here break state law. Specifically, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, claims that the fetal tissue donation policies at the University of New Mexico and Southwest Women’s Options are breaking a 2007 state law. That law, known as the Spradling Act, regulates body part and organ donations for science. In a press release, the U.S House Select Panel on Infant Rights claims that “under the Spradling Act the bodies or parts of aborted infants may not be anatomical gifts.”
“Documentation obtained by the Panel in the course of our investigation reflects the transfer of fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options to UNM for research purposes is a systematic violation of New Mexico’s Spradling Act,” Blackburn said in the release. But the actual provision of the law Blackburn cited about abortion occurs under the law’s definition of “decedent,” which in other words means a dead person.
NM Political Report has learned the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center is resisting part of a subpoena from a U.S. congressional panel conducting an investigation into local abortion providers. In a Thursday email to Health Sciences Center employees obtained by NM Political Report, Chancellor Paul Roth writes that UNM plans to fight a portion of the subpoena that asks for “the names of faculty, staff, residents and students who participated” in fetal tissue research conducted by the university. “I am concerned that supplying this information would potentially endanger the safety of faculty, staff and students on our campus,” Roth wrote. “We are working to clarify and revise this request for personally identifiable information and its relevance to the stated charge of the Select Panel.”
Roth added that he is “steadfast” in his “commitment to ensuring the safety of everyone on our campus, as well as cultivating an environment that fosters freedom of thought and scientific inquiry.”
Roth’s email comes after another Albuquerque women’s health clinic, Southwest Women’s Options, similarly promised to resist part of another subpoena by the Congressional Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives asking for five years of employee information. UNM and Southwest Women’s Options both offer abortion procedures to women.
For the second time this legislative session, a Republican broke ranks with his party to vote down legislation aimed at further regulating abortion procedures in the state. Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, voted against a House memorial asking three state agencies to coordinate reporting when infants who show signs of life outside of the womb after abortion procedures. “If you were bringing a bill banning late-term abortion, I’d be with this,” Smith told sponsor and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, in committee. “But this is concerning.”
Smith joined three Democrats Monday afternoon in the House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee in tabling Montoya’s memorial on a 4-3 vote. During debate, Montoya mentioned how the University of New Mexico, which provides abortions during the first and second trimester of pregnancies, likely is not practicing “the particular abortion procedure that is producing born alive infants.”
Smith responded that the Legislature isn’t the correct body to “go after a potential violator” if it didn’t know who the violator was or if a violation was happening.
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.
Periodic threats often prompt clinics that provide abortions to take stronger security measures than other types of health care clinics. But no clinic follows a uniform security policy per se. David Cohen, co-author of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Story of Anti-Abortion Terrorism,” spent three years interviewing 87 abortion providers in 34 states about the safety of their clinics. “At the outset, every clinic and every provider walks it differently,” Cohen said in an interview with NM Political Report. Each clinic, he said, must balance providing strong security without alienating its patients.
When Philip Leahy, John Rice and Christina Garza come to protest an Albuquerque clinic that provides abortions, they stand on a sidewalk across the parking lot. “We try to be here all the days that they are open,” Leahy said of Southwestern Women’s Options, which is open on weekdays during normal business hours. Clad with a scarf, a winter coat and gloves, Leahy explained on a recent chilly weekday that the clinic’s parking lot is private property, and thus he and his fellow protesters are not allowed to step on it. This keeps him at a distance from the clinic’s front door where patients enter. So his group, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, which opposes abortion, instead tries to wave over women entering the clinic to talk with them.