House committee tables two anti-abortion measures

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Abortion debate

Luke E. Montavon / The New Mexican

A crowd listens to testimony on House Bill 220 on Sunday during the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee meeting.

A committee of the state House of Representatives on Sunday blocked a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The same committee also tabled a bill that would have required a doctor to notify a minor patient’s parent or guardian before performing an abortion. Opponents of that measure, House Bill 221, said the notification requirement would endanger girls who were victims of incest or rape by a family acquaintance. The bill sponsor, Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, countered that the proposal had an exception in cases of rape and incest.

The 3-2 party-line votes to stop the bills were hardly a surprise. With Democrats holding a majority of seats on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, the proposals were almost certain to join a list of similar anti-abortion bills that Republican lawmakers have pushed for years without success.

And the votes signaled that stances on abortion have not shifted at the state Capitol, even as neighboring states are tightening rules on the procedure.

Even so, the two bills prompted emotional, deeply personal testimony from dozens of people who assembled on both sides of the issue, demonstrating how measures that would apply to only a relatively small portion of the abortions received by New Mexico residents each year have become a flashpoint in debates over religion and women’s reproductive rights.

The sponsor of House Bill 220, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except when a doctor deems the procedure medically necessary, emphasized it would not prohibit all abortions but curb the abortion of what she described as viable human beings.

“This is a constitutional right for these 5-month-old babies,” said Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo.

Herrell and many who spoke in favor of the bill also said that New Mexico is one of only a few states to allow abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Forty-three states prohibit some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that tracks and promotes reproductive rights around the world. But abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy account for a relatively small share of the total number of such procedures performed in New Mexico. Of the 4,198 abortions performed in 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 percent were later in the patient’s pregnancy.

Critics of the bill disputed the suggestion that fetuses are viable after 20 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy. And prohibiting procedures outright after a certain stage of pregnancy would unfairly limit the rights of women to make decisions about their health care, opponents of the bill said.

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“Many women are coming from different walks of life that need so much support, not judgment,” said Dr. Mariam Savabi, an obstetrician at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

Legislators met all weekend as the session entered its last two weeks, but the committee that convened on a Sunday morning to take up the abortion bills prompted criticism from Republicans who said Democrats were attempting to cut out churchgoers. But the hearings still drew a large audience.

Witnesses, some in tears, spoke about abortions they regretted. Others spoke about the support they were glad to have found when they sought one.

The testimony did not seem to change any minds and prompted few comments from Democrats on the committee or even from Republicans, who acknowledged the outcome of the votes was not in doubt.

The crowd thinned during testimony on the second bill to require doctors to inform an underage patient’s parent or guardian of a planned abortion at least two days in advance.

Of nearly 4,200 abortions performed in New Mexico during 2013, about 260 involved patients under the age of 18, according to the CDC.

But, under Little’s bill, the parent’s consent would not be required for the abortion to proceed. And the bill would not apply in cases of rape or incest so long as the doctor reported the complaint to the Children, Youth and Families Department.

The bill’s backers argued it would be a common-sense measure akin to existing policies requiring parents consent for a school nurse to provide medication.

A total of 37 states require a parent to be involved in some way in a minor’s decision to have an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Of those, 11 states only require doctors to notify a parent.

Opponents countered that it would drive young women away from licensed abortion providers toward less safe alternatives.

The bills were among a handful of abortion-related bills filed by Republicans during this 60-day session. The same committee rejected a separate bill last week that would have imposed new regulations on abortion providers.

Contact Andrew Oxford at (505) 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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