New Mexico Democrats Are Ready to Shore up Abortion Rights. And Republicans Can’t Stop It. (Updated)

With control of the legislature and governorship, New Mexico Democrats could be among the next to axe a pre-Roe abortion ban.

Michelle Lujan Grisham, who won New Mexico's gubernatorial election November 6, said she'll back Democrats' pro-choice push in 2019. Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

UPDATE, March 15, 3:07 p.m.: Eight Democrats in New Mexico’s state senate joined Republicans Thursday in voting against the repeal of the state’s archaic law criminalizing abortion care, according to NM Political Report.

A college student in New Mexico in the pre-Roe days of the early 1970s, Joanne Ferrary recalls friends who “risked their lives” accessing illegal abortions.

Flash forward more than four decades: Ferrary, now a lawmaker in the New Mexico House of Representatives, is filing legislation in December to repeal the state’s decades-old abortion ban. New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session starts January 15. 

Passed in the 1960s, the archaic law pre-dated the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. New Mexico is among nearly a dozen states with bans like this still on the books; Massachusetts repealed its law in May.

With a federal administration hostile to reproductive rights and the recent appointment of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Ferrary believes using state-level power to avert a rollback of abortion rights is vital in 2019. New Mexico’s archaic ban makes it a felony to end a pregnancy, except in rare cases.

“I don’t want women to go back to that,” Ferrary (D-Las Cruces) told Rewire.News. “We need to make sure we’re able to keep abortion safe, and have access, and make sure it stays legal in our state.”

Although Ferrary predicts a degree of “passionate” Republican opposition to the bill, the GOP is effectively shut out of power in both of New Mexico’s legislative chambers, and it has little hope of blocking the legislation. In the house, Democrats outnumber Republicans—and women outnumber men. The state’s incoming governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), said she’d support Ferrary’s bill. Her Republican predecessor had opposed it.

Respect New Mexico Women, a coalition of groups that in 2013 worked to defeat an abortion ban in Albuquerque, is now marshaling support for the repeal bill. Denicia Cadena, policy director for Young Women United, one of the groups, said safeguarding abortion access is crucial in a state like New Mexico. She said the majority of the population is comprised of people of color, who already face barriers to health care.

Legal scholars predict it’s only a matter of time before Roe is gutted by conservatives on the Supreme Court. Anti-choice groups led by Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission filed a friend-of-the-court brief this month with the Supreme Court, urging justices to reconsider the landmark abortion case. The brief centers on an Indiana abortion restriction blocked by a lower court.

Nearly half of the 50 states are hostile to abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has assessed what a post-Roe world might look like. Besides states like New Mexico, with pre-Roe laws banning the procedure, the center identified four states with “trigger” laws that automatically outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned. Laws in 21 states severely restrict access to abortion based on the age of the fetus. This year, Iowa Republicans tried to outlaw abortions after a doctor can hear a “heartbeat”—at around six weeks into pregnancy—but the law was blocked in court. So-called heartbeat bills are a de facto abortion ban because six weeks is before most people find out they’re pregnant.

Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, said that in “many states it’s been a scary time for quite a while.”

Nash sees parallels between today’s grim outlook for abortion rights and the late 1980s and early 1990s. She said the period was the “last time there was serious concern that the U.S. Supreme Court might dismantle abortion rights.” Five states—Washington, Nevada, Maryland, Maine, and Connecticut—responded by shoring up abortion rights through ballot initiatives and new laws to protect access to legal abortion.

Nash predicts a similar legislative push in 2019 to increase abortion access in northeastern states, Washington, and California. New York’s new Democratic legislative majority is primed to protect abortion rights in the state. Nash even expects to see bills to increase abortion access in conservative-held states, “as a way to change the debate in those legislatures.”

“Even though abortion rights are in jeopardy, there is the opportunity for states to pursue new standards that fully support access to abortion and perhaps take a page from Oregon, which in 2017 affirmed the right to abortion and provided funding mechanisms,” Nash said. 

For Ferrary, it makes no sense to wait. “We take this threat seriously,” she said of the national political climate. “We’ve had a history of supporting our health care providers, and to criminalize them for providing safe and legal abortions—we’re not going to let that happen.”