Anti-Choicers' New Mexico Experiment

AP Photo/ The Albuquerque Journal, Kitty Clark Fritz; homepage photo by Chloe Hall/The American Prospect

Abortion-rights supporters and opponents demonstrate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

In early August, several dozen teenagers and a few adult supervisors descended on the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a request: They wanted the curators to add an exhibit on abortion. When their demand was rebuffed, the teens—who were spending the week in the city as part of a pro-life training camp sponsored by Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust—unfurled a banner outside the building calling Albuquerque “America’s Auschwitz.”

The protest catapulted Albuquerque into the national media, but the demonstration is just part of a larger experiment by the recent wave of pro-life activists flocking in from out of state: Can they transform New Mexico—a moderate state with liberal abortion laws—into another reproductive-rights battleground? After a number of failed efforts to change policy in the legislature, abortion opponents have homed in on Albuquerque. Earlier this summer, they gathered enough signatures to put an ordinance banning abortion after 20 weeks before city voters in a special election. While similar bans have been passed in a dozen states, the proposed law would be the first to limit abortion at the local level. The immediate goal is to end the controversial practice of third-trimester abortion, but the campaign could also serve as a model for pro-life activists who are eager to spread red-state extremism into more moderate parts of the country.

Compared with its neighbors' abortion policies, New Mexico’s is practically socialist. Abortion is legal throughout pregnancy, and New Mexico has none of the restrictions—ultrasounds, waiting periods, building-code regulations intended to make it hard for clinics to stay open—that have swept the country in the past five years. But Albuquerque became a focal point for the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in 2010, when Southwestern Women’s Options (SWO), a local abortion provider, became one of three clinics in the country to offer abortions in the third trimester. SWO expanded its services after the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider in Kansas; two of the physicians who worked for Tiller took jobs in the clinic. Because it offers elective abortion until a woman is 28 weeks pregnant—four weeks later than many states permit—and abortion after 28 weeks to protect the health of the mother, the clinic made Albuquerque a national destination both for women traveling to receive an abortion and for pro-life advocates outraged by the practice.

Bud and Tara Shaver are among the pro-life advocates who moved to New Mexico from out of state. Shortly after completing a yearlong training in Kansas with Operation Rescue, they moved to Albuquerque to shut down SWO and reactivate the state’s long-dormant abortion debate. The Shavers took jobs with Project Defending Life, a Catholic ministry, where they tapped into a small but committed group of volunteers. Project Defending Life regularly holds prayer services, runs several crisis-pregnancy centers, and organizes “sidewalk counseling” in which volunteers hold protest signs and offer pro-life literature to women entering abortion clinics. With the support of Father Stephen Imbarrato, founder of Project Defending Life, the Shavers began to try every strategy in their arsenal. But their early forays into politics were unsuccessful. Petitions to the state legislature came up empty; restrictions on abortion access were introduced, but the bills died in committee. Tara began assembling a small library of 911 calls from SWO cataloguing the injuries that resulted after abortion procedures, but the state medical board refused to issue sanctions against the providers. Then they stumbled upon a new idea. Union activists had recently succeeded in passing a living-wage ballot measure in Albuquerque. “When we realized we could do the same thing, we thought, let’s just take a leap and try it,” Tara says. 

Using their volunteer network, drawn mostly from evangelical and Catholic churches, the Shavers raised the 12,000 signatures needed to get a 20-week ban, modeled after legislation that passed in Texas earlier this summer, on the ballot for a special election. But it was the Survivors of Abortion Holocaust training camp, which fell just a few weeks after the last signatures were collected, that got residents’ attention. After demonstrating in front of the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum, the teenagers fanned out across the city, handing out postcards stamped with “Killers Among Us,” which featured mug shots of local abortion doctors. Later in the week, they picketed an abortion provider’s home and protested in front of a birthing center he advises.

These aggressive tactics don't mesh well with New Mexico’s laissez-faire attitude toward abortion. “We’ve always had a respectful debate on abortion,” says Diane Denish, a long-time Democratic politician who served two terms as the state’s lieutenant governor. “The violent rhetoric, the Holocaust stuff—it’s just not the way we do things in New Mexico.” The campaign, abortion-rights supporters say, is reminiscent of the relentless attacks against George Tiller. Seven years before Tiller was murdered, Operation Rescue had moved its headquarters to Wichita, Kansas, to focus its efforts on shutting his clinic down. Now Operation Rescue has come to Albuquerque, dispatching its “Truth Truck”—a van decked out with grisly images of dismembered fetuses. Although the group condemned Tiller’s murder and said it had no ties to the killer, pro-choice activists say that Operation Rescue’s rhetoric does the work for them.


Since July, supporters and opponents of the ban have formed two coalitions: Albuquerque Deserves Better, an alliance between three pro-life groups who support the ballot measure, and Respect Albuquerque Women, an umbrella organization that includes Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Young Women United, the Southwest Women’s Law Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico. Both groups are working on voter turnout for the special election, whose date has not yet been set. City officials say the vote will take place sometime this fall.

Anti-abortion activists are hopeful about the ballot measure’s chances. Polling on the issue backs them up: A survey conducted for a local newspaper revealed that 54 percent of Albuquerque residents favor the ban. “The community response was absolutely amazing,” Tara says. “We did capitalize on the churches, but we were able to cross a lot of bipartisan lines. We had Muslims sign the petition, and people who self-identified as pro-choice but were opposed to late-term abortions.” Paula Glennon, a bookkeeper and frequent “sidewalk counseling” volunteer who helped gather signatures, says that many people she spoke with were horrified to learn that third-trimester abortions were available in Albuquerque. “They were thanking me, saying they had no idea this atrocity was being committed right under their noses,” she says.

Whether or not the ordinance passes, the national attention being trained on Albuquerque could help accomplish other pro-life goals. Imbarrato says he wants more New Mexico residents to challenge Republican politicians like current governor Susana Martinez, who is pro-life but has not focused on abortion. “I am really tired of these supposedly pro-life politicians who use the label to get elected and then do nothing to regulate abortion,” he says. “We’re hoping that through raised awareness, politicians will take a hard look at what other states have done and start bringing that legislation to New Mexico.” 

The ballot measure’s opponents say that pro-lifers picked the wrong state to tangle with. Denish, who has become an informal spokesperson for Respect Albuquerque Women, says that the city’s residents are frustrated by efforts to put Albuquerque on the front lines of the abortion debate. Aside from their disgust with the increasingly militant anti-abortion tactics, she says that residents have practical concerns. The special election could cost up to $600,000, and if the ballot measure passes, the city would have to defend it in court, racking up legal fees. “We’re a cash-strapped city, and this isn’t an issue people are focused on,” Denish says “They’re annoyed by the demonstrations. Bringing in outside groups like Operation Rescue has galvanized people who might have been in the middle on the issue.” Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico, agrees that lack of local support is a problem. “This certainly didn’t grow organically within the state,” she says. 

Local reproductive justice organizers who have worked in Albuquerque for years say their ties to the community give them credibility with voters who are ambivalent about late-term abortion. This is especially important in reaching the city’s large Latino population; nationally, a slim majority of Latinos oppose abortion, which makes this a potential swing constituency. Organizers for Young Women United, a group that works with communities of color, say that their past work aiding young parents, improving health literacy, and emphasizing sex education has built up the trust they need to convince voters. “For us, this isn’t about late-term abortion,” says Micaela Cadena, the group’s policy director. “It’s that the family knows best what they need and what’s happening in their life.”

With a special election, polls matter less than local outrage. What matters is turnout. Between now and Election Day, the ballot measure’s supporters will have to convince city residents who are uncomfortable with their tactics to come out and vote. But even if they pull off a coup and the ballot measure passes, pro-choice activists are ready to mount a fight. The ACLU has pledged to sue the city. What’s more, the measure will likely run afoul of federal and New Mexico law. In other states, federal judges have put holds on abortion bans while the cases wind their way up through the system; others have struck them down entirely. It’s hard to imagine the same thing wouldn’t happen in Albuquerque, allowing Southwestern Women’s Options to stay open for the foreseeable future. None of this bodes well for Operation Rescue’s crusade to end third-trimester abortion. Colorado and Maryland, the other two states with late-term abortion clinics, are more solid liberal strongholds, where a similar campaign at the state or local level would quickly be subdued. 

But that doesn’t mean the experiment’s over. For the Shavers and Imbarrato, this campaign is the beginning of a longer-term effort to carve out a place for abortion in New Mexico politics. This strategy could easily be imported to other states: If pro-life groups see Albuquerque as a model, they could use similar local initiatives in moderate states to force the hands of politicians who are currently reluctant to take on abortion. “Whenever there’s a new approach, you immediately wonder—will this be tried in other places?” says Elizabeth Nash, the state issues director for the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization that supports legal abortion. “It doesn’t matter if this particular measure is defeated. The big question is whether other groups will look at New Mexico and see this as a strategy that could work for them.”

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