The latest flashpoint in the national abortion debate sparked in Hobbs.
A nonbinding resolution adopted by the Lea County Council in February to support life at conception — which inspired similar action in Roswell and Eddy County and a failed attempt last week in Farmington — has broadened into a growing nationwide movement to create so-called sanctuary cities for the unborn and new laws in several Texas cities criminalizing abortion.
The local government actions, which are currently unenforceable, come as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case involving a Louisiana law requiring any doctor providing an abortion to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The Supreme Court struck down an identical law in Texas three years ago. The Louisiana case is considered by advocates on both sides of the abortion debate as a test on whether a more conservative panel of justices would be willing to uphold restrictive abortion laws or even overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade establishing a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion.
On Tuesday, a Farmington City Council resolution supporting human life at conception — modeled after similar local government measures that had passed months earlier in Southern New Mexico — was struck from the agenda on a narrow vote. The measure was introduced by first-term City Councilor Sean Sharer, the son of Republican state Sen. Bill Sharer of Farmington.
The Farmington Daily Times reported that Mayor Nate Duckett cast a tiebreaking vote to strike the resolution. Despite his personal support for the measure, Duckett said, according to the Daily Times, he felt City Hall was the wrong place to consider the matter.
Sean Sharer said in a phone interview Thursday he would not bring the resolution back for consideration in the near future.
The measure started with multiple calls from constituents — many from a local chapter of New Mexico Right to Life — to pass a resolution designating Farmington as a sanctuary city for the unborn. But, he said, the mayor did not want to use the term “sanctuary city,” and the City Council cannot create abortion laws that supersede federal and state laws.
Sharer originally requested a resolution stating the city’s opposition to abortion but changed the language in the final draft to instead voice support for all life, starting at conception, with considerations for foster children and the homeless.
“I can’t outlaw abortion in Farmington. We don’t have that authority,” Sharer said. “So I told them, ‘I can’t do that, but I can draft something about human life that I think the entire community could be proud of,’ so that’s where I started.”
Larissa Jay, an advanced emergency medical technician working on the Navajo Nation, disagreed.
“I think at the heart of it, it was an anti-abortion resolution,” Jay said. “… The messaging that gets out is that people should be ashamed for seeking services that they wanted and that should be available to them at any time.”
Jay, 29, previously worked at Planned Parenthood. The organization’s Farmington clinic does not provide abortions, she said. Patients seeking abortion services are referred to clinics in Durango, Colo., or Albuquerque.
The failed Farmington effort closely followed more forceful actions in September by six cities in Texas. Each of them had cited the resolutions in New Mexico as the inspiration for an ordinance outlawing abortion providers.
The Texas city of Gilmer, Texas, joined Waskom, Omaha, Naples, Joaquin and Tenaha in passing laws prohibiting people from performing abortions, helping people obtain medical and surgical abortions and selling emergency contraception. The measures call for civil penalties for obtaining an abortion and a $2,000 fine for a doctor who performs the procedure.
The laws make allowances in cases of rape and incest — if the crimes are reported to law enforcement — or life-threatening pregnancy complications.
Gilmer’s ordinance is the only one that doesn’t prohibit the sale of levonorgestrel, the so-called morning-after pill, which can prevent pregnancy for up to five days after unprotected sex.
There were no abortion services in the six cities before the laws were passed.
Though the criminal sanctions have no teeth under the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in both Roe v. Wade and it’s 1992 successor, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life is pushing other cities to adopt similar laws. In an opinion piece published in the Federalist web magazine, the group’s legislative and policy associate, Rebecca Parma, said the effort was a way to make gains outside the state Legislature.
“One of the primary purposes of these ordinances is prevention,” she wrote. “If cities that do not currently house an abortion facility take action now, they can immediately prevent abortion businesses from moving into their cities and committing abortions, using the fear of future prosecution against abortionists once Roe v. Wade is overturned.”
The local government movement against abortion is largely rooted in New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session.
House Bill 51, which would have removed unenforceable state laws criminalizing abortion from New Mexico’s books, drew hours of impassioned testimony from people on both sides of the debate. Passage of the measure seemed certain to many, with a heavily Democratic Legislature and a newly elected Democratic governor who gave her support.
Indeed, the legislation sailed through the House. But in the Senate, eight Democrats voted with Republicans to defeat the bill, an action Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called “an embarrassment.”
Debate on the bill was often bogged down in concerns about a “conscience clause,” with critics saying removal of certain language from the old laws would leave doctors who oppose abortion little leeway to refuse to perform the procedure — though, analysis of the bill said such protections already exist under federal law.
In response to the “conversations in Santa Fe” about abortion, first-term Lea County Commissioner Jonathan Sena, a Republican, began to consider a resolution pledging support for the unborn. Sena said he and an attorney contacted officials in Effingham County, Ill., which had adopted a sanctuary resolution in June 2018.
“We on the County Commission took a look at the issue and decided we would speak up for this community, and by community I mean unborn children,” Sena said, adding he wanted to start a broader conversation.
His measure passed unanimously in February.
Hobbs, the county’s largest city — with a population of about 37,700 — has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the state, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Health.
A month later, policymakers in Roswell followed suit. The City Council passed a resolution stating, “innocent human life, including fetal life, must always be protected and that Society must protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
The resolution said the council opposes loosening existing restrictions on abortion.
In April, Eddy County passed the resolution, too.
After each local government in New Mexico voted to adopt a resolution essentially denouncing abortion, the fiercely anti-abortion organization Abortion Free New Mexico, run by Albuquerque residents Bud and Tara Shaver, issued a news release touting the action.
Anti-abortion and conservative media sites across the nation — such as the Washington Examiner, LifeNews and Ben Shapiro’s DailyWire — seized on the Shavers’ announcements, parroting their new releases for a larger audience.
By May, Riverton, Utah, had adopted a resolution calling itself a “sanctuary city for the unborn”; officials cited Roswell’s resolution as the inspiration.
Advocates in Raleigh, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala., demanded their cities adopt similar measures.
Ethel Maharg, executive director of Right to Life New Mexico, wouldn’t say if the organization was pushing for such resolutions, but she said it wanted to encourage local chapters of the national organization to get involved.
“If it’s to stand on the sidewalk and pray or pass resolutions for life, we stand with them,” Maharg said. “If it helps people who want to get involved, get involved, we’re for it.”
Elisa Martinez, founder and director of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, another statewide anti-abortion organization, said it encourages local communities to engage in such efforts but is hesitant to offer direct support.
“We’re not necessarily putting resources towards resolutions,” she said.
Martinez said her concern is that a legal challenge could make its way to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which has just one Republican justice. She cited a ruling in 2013 that required the state to use Medicaid to fund medically necessary abortions and takes issue that it included mental health exceptions.
“It could create bad case law,” she said.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said it will monitor any effects of the resolutions. Ellie Rushforth, ACLU-NM’s reproductive rights lawyer, said the resolutions pose an indirect threat.
“In a state with a shortage of rural health care providers, resolutions like these only create confusion and stigma, and have a chilling effect on access to safe and legal abortion,” Rushforth wrote in a statement. “Enforcement of these resolutions, which attempt to rewrite and redefine the law, carry no legal weight.”
Charlotte Taft, a retired director of an abortion clinic in Dallas and former leader of the Abortion Care Network who now lives in New Mexico, said anti-abortion advocates feed into a system that increases the abortion rate.
“The anti-abortion movement has made it more likely that abortions will happen later, when it is unsafe, more expensive and plays into their message,” Taft said.
The political climate only serves to isolate people on a topic that’s personal and complicated, she added.
“With millions of women and their male partners ashamed to speak about their experiences,” Taft said, “we shouldn’t be surprised we’re in this situation.”