Pro-Choice Groups in New Mexico Set Sights On State FOCA

Gwyneth Doland

Advocates for reproductive choice in New Mexico say the time is right to push for passage of a state Freedom of Choice Act.

While abortion is legal in New Mexico, thanks to Roe v. Wade, the
state still has an old law on the books from 1969 banning the practice.

Advocates for reproductive choice say they plan to push again in the 2009 legislative session for
passage of a state Freedom of Choice Act that would repeal the 1969 law
and consolidate three decades’ worth of laws protecting access to
contraception and abortion. A similar bill died in the House before a
vote last year but supporters are hopeful that a new environment in the
state Legislature, including more progressive members and a new female
governor, will help push the bill to passage.

But it won’t be easy. Legislators will have a huge budget deficit to
deal with. Anti-abortion groups are sure to oppose it, and the
transition between outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson and incoming Gov.
Diane Denish could result in some chaotic power struggles.

"We’re saying this is bad law, an outdated, outmoded law that needs
to be taken off the books, and we need to bring New Mexico law into
line with federal law. It’s really a clean-up," says Heather Brewer,
the outgoing executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Mexico.

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According to a Legislative Finance Committee analysis of last year’s version of the bill (it’s expected to be similar this year), the Freedom of Choice Act would:

… Prohibit the state from denying or interfering with a
person’s right to obtain and use contraceptives, or a woman’s right to
have an abortion prior to viability of the "conceptus." The bill would
also confer the right to provide reproductive services on health care
providers unimpeded by state action. The bill also repeals state laws …
which generally impose fourth degree felony penalties on persons
performing abortions if the pregnancy termination is not a "justified
medical termination."

"I can’t see FOCA going anywhere when we have a half a billion
dollar shortfall," says Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New
Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that frequently lobbies
to restrict abortion and to protect social service programs.

"The legislators I’ve spoken to feel there’s enough [laws] already in place that they don’t need to go further," Sanchez says.

Still, supporters are optimistic.

"I think there’s a pretty good chance of getting FOCA through. … I
think we still have pretty good numbers in the House and Senate," says
Brian Nichols, an Albuquerque attorney and a director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Mexico who has helped to draft the Freedom of Choice Act.

One strategic concession in FOCA, designed to maximize its appeal,
is that it would not challenge the federal law known as the
"partial-birth" abortion ban.

"It’s a fight that’s not worth fighting," Nichols says, referring to
the ambiguity inherent in the law and the extreme rarity of the
procedure.

Trying to get around that particular federal ban might have reduced
to nil FOCA’s chances of passing in New Mexico, but leaving it out
won’t necessarily sweeten the deal for anti-abortion groups.

"It creates a more difficult way to get any [anti-abortion]
legislation, such as parental notification, through the statehouse,"
Sanchez adds.

That’s precisely why groups like NARAL want FOCA in place. During
nearly every session, anti-abortion legislators introduce bills
restricting abortion in some way, such as requiring that teen-age girls
notify their parents before getting an abortion. So far, pro-choice
supporters have successfully fought off most of those laws. But they’re
tired of swatting at flies, they say, and the election of a strong
pro-choice president in Barack Obama has given them … yes … hope.

(A federal version
of FOCA has also been introduced, but not passed, in Congress. Barack
Obama was a co-sponsor of the 2007 Senate version of that bill, and in
a speech last year he said: "The first thing I’d do, as President, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing that I’d do.")

"The state – even the nation – is reaching some sort of a consensus
that abortion should be safe, legal and available with some
limitations," Nichols says, referring to anti-abortion ballot measures that failed in several states on Nov. 4.

It is not yet clear who will introduce the bill when the state
Legislature convenes in January. In the last session it was introduced
in the House by Reps. Gail Chasey and Mimi Stewart, both Albuquerque
Democrats; this time supporters are considering introducing it in the
Senate.

The bill’s chances could be helped by the November election results,
which will bring a handful of new, more progressive allies of choice to
the Roundhouse. FOCA’s chances could be improved if progressives
succeed in an effort to shake up leadership
in the Senate and install Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat, as
the body’s leader. The bill’s prospects would dim if Sen. Tim Jennings
, D-Chaves, is successful in forming a coalition of Republicans and
conservative Democrats to retain his leadership post.

And then there’s the governor’s office. Although both Richardson and
Denish have been strong pro-choice supporters, Denish has been more
intimately involved; She is an honorary board member of NARAL, and some
abortion rights advocates view her as more reliable on the issue.

Richardson has indicated that he will not relinquish control of the
office until he is confirmed as commerce secretary by the U.S. Senate
in February, leaving open the possibility that he could torpedo FOCA to
spite a supporter in the Legislature who has drawn his ire. The
governor is notorious for using his veto powers to reward those who are
loyal to him and punish those who are not.

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