Commentary Abortion

Anti-Choice Democrats Betrayed New Mexico When They Protected a Law Criminalizing Abortion

Marshall Martinez

A group of state senate Democrats sided with Republicans to prevent the repeal of a 50-year-old law that makes abortion a felony.

New Mexico lawmakers last week were inches away from eliminating some of the most archaic state anti-choice language in the United States.

Today, New Mexico remains one of a handful of states with a dangerous pre-Roe v. Wade law on the books banning abortion care, thanks to a group of state senate Democrats joining Republicans to defeat the repeal effort. In the past two years, voters have elected Democratic majorities in New Mexico and made clear the importance of reproductive health-care access. This awakening has led to unprecedented voter turnout, especially among women. One has to wonder why this group of Democrats would openly ignore facts and turn their backs on their constituents.

The repeal was defeated despite the work of Respect New Mexico Women, a powerhouse coalition of organizations that has worked tirelessly toward providing, protecting, and expanding access to reproductive health care. (Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, where I work, is a member of the Respect coalition.)

It was a simple piece of legislation. In 1969, New Mexico legislators passed a law making abortion a felony, mandating that a provider who performed the procedure be charged with a crime, except in limited circumstances. The 1969 law only allowed for abortion if the pregnant person’s life or health were at serious risk, if the fetus would be born with a significant “defect,” or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. Disturbingly, a pregnant person who was raped was required to sign an affidavit and assure a special hospital board that she would report the rape to law enforcement.

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The law required that a panel of doctors review the case to determine whether these circumstances were truly met before an abortion could be performed. Last week’s legislation would have repealed the 1969 law, which has been unenforceable since 1973, when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, even in the Land of Enchantment.

Despite the outpouring of support from activists and organizations across the state and country, and the enthusiastic support of the governor, this common-sense bill failed to pass the state senate.

How does a bill with massive momentum and support, hundreds of activists visiting the state capitol and sharing their personal stories, tens of thousands of petition signatures, emails, and phone calls, and the backing of the governor and the attorney general suddenly and unceremoniously die on the floor of a state senate? The measure, after all, passed the New Mexico House of Representatives in a 40-29 vote.

We need look no further than a group of conservative Democrats in the state senate who are out of step with their communities on economic and health-care policy. Facts and research from the past two years and community mobilization, including unprecedented voter turnout in the New Mexico midterm elections, weren’t enough to convince eight state senate Democrats from mostly progressive districts that voting “yes” was the right thing to do.

On the night of the senate floor hearing, we listened as one Democrat after another, elected by a party that supports the freedom to make decisions for oneself, uttered the word “no” as their vote. Some of these votes were “inexplicable,” in the words of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D).

State Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D-Taos), who represents a longtime progressive stronghold in northern New Mexico, cast his vote with Republicans and conservative Democrats. State Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Española) succumbed to the pressure of his church and an aggressive misinformation campaign against House Bill 51. 

State Sen. George Munoz (D-Gallup) had been noncommittal leading up to the vote. A group of his constituents from his largely Native American district told me Munoz said the pueblos, tribes, and Navajo nation unanimously opposed access to safe and legal abortion despite dozens of Indigenous activists, including elders, telling their stories in committee hearings, in letters to the editor, and on the radio about the history of reproductive coercion in their communities and the importance of body sovereignty.

Two loyal members of the legislature’s conservative Democratic coalition, state Sens. Clemente Sanchez (D-Grants) and John Arthur Smith (D-Deming), followed the lead of State Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces) in siding against the repeal of our state’s archaic anti-choice law. Smith has been in the senate since 1989 and has worked within this coalition for years to hold back progress on economic or health-care access that might benefit working class New Mexicans. State Sen. Gabriel Ramos (D-Silver City), whose district was long represented by a progressive champion, Lt. Governor Howie Morales (D), was the only senator to speak in opposition to the bill on the senate floor.

Rural New Mexicans believe they can hold their personal views on abortion and still support a person’s right to make that decision for themselves. These senators ignored the organizing meetings across the state throughout November and December that included working with people to practice holding conversations about abortion in family settings. They ignored the 976 activists who traveled over 196,000 miles to the state capitol from all 33 counties in New Mexico. They ignored the more than 160 powerful heartfelt personal testimonies given in committee.

These Democratic state senators ignored the will of the people. But rest assured, we will not ignore their actions, and we will never stop working to protect access to safe and legal abortion care in New Mexico.

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