There was the story of a woman who shot herself in the abdomen.
There was the story of a woman’s trip to Juárez for an abortion in the 1960s.
Lining up in the state House of Representatives on Saturday morning, one New Mexican after another recounted their recollections of life before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Concern that courts could undermine or overturn the country’s landmark decision on abortion has renewed a push by Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico to repeal an old, unenforceable law that makes it a fourth-degree felony to perform the procedure.
The fear among proponents of House Bill 51 is that the old abortion ban might become enforceable again if the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court were to revisit Roe v. Wade.
“With the threat of a Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe, we need to repeal this law to protect health care providers and keep abortion safe and legal,” state Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Saturday, after long lines of New Mexicans on both sides of the abortion debate gave more than three hours of often-tearful testimony.
“We can’t go back to those days when women had to risk their lives just to get health care,” Ferrary said.
But Republicans argue HB 51 goes much further by threatening to repeal a section of state law that allows doctors and hospitals to refuse to participate in abortions — a so-called conscience clause they say is a key protection for medical professionals opposed to the procedure.
In turn, a short and technical piece of legislation has become a flashpoint in the debate over abortion in New Mexico, representing an effort by Democratic lawmakers to shore up abortion rights in the face of a conservative administration in Washington, D.C., while opponents advocate for rolling back the state’s relatively nonrestrictive laws.
The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 3-2 along party lines Saturday to advance the measure, sending it to the Judiciary Committee, where it will get another hearing.
The bill repeals three pieces of state law. One is the 1969 statute that makes it a felony to perform an abortion.
Another piece of law sets out the process for approving what it calls a “justified medical termination.” Under the old law, abortion was allowed in cases of rape or if a child would have a “grave physical or mental defect” or to save the mother’s life. But in those cases, an abortion would have to be approved by a special board at a hospital where the procedure would be performed.
The state Court of Appeals ruled in the 1970s that some of those provisions were unconstitutional.
In turn, some Republicans have said repealing certain sections of the old law is reasonable.
But GOP lawmakers have raised particular concerns about a third piece of the bill, which would repeal a section of law that allows hospitals and medical personnel to forgo participating in an abortion if they object to the procedure on moral or religious grounds.
“This is the only abortion-specific conscience protection clause we have in our entire state law,” said state Rep. Gregg Schmedes, a Republican from Tijeras who is opposed to the bill. “We need to be very careful with this.”
Forty-six states have some such provision in law, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports access to abortion.
HB 51 would “leave health care providers with a choice to either perform or facilitate abortions in violation of their conscience or to stop providing health care altogether,” said Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life.
Proponents argue federal laws, such as what is known as the Church Amendment and the state’s Uniform Health Care Decisions Act, already allow medical professionals to decline to perform or assist with abortions.
And several groups representing health care professionals, including the New Mexico Medical Society, favor the bill.
While GOP lawmakers could propose to rewrite that section of HB 51 as it wends through committees at the Capitol, Democrats enjoy a larger majority in the House than last year and a firm majority in the Senate, virtually assuring they have the votes to pass the measure.
New Mexico is one of nine states with an abortion ban on the books from before the era of Roe v. Wade.
Last year, Massachusetts repealed its old abortion ban, passing what was known as the NASTY Women Act — Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women.
And New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham threw her support firmly behind HB 51 in her State of the State address this month.
“Let us show the women of this state that we will not allow faraway federal judges to determine autonomy over their bodies,” she said. “The old criminal abortion law of this state, one of only nine left in the country, must go. Bring me that bill. I will sign it.”