Albuquerque voters reject city ban on late-term abortions

Abortion foes around the country have been developing a strategy of bringing the battle over abortion to the local level, but the rejected ordinance in Albuquerque was the first attempt to pass restrictions at the municipal level.

Juan Antonio Labreche/AP
Anti-abortion advocates and members of 'And Then There Were None,' picket in front of a Planned Parenthood location in Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Albuquerque voters turned out in record numbers at the desert city's polling stations Tuesday rejecting a city ban on late-term abortions.

Voters in Albuquerque, N.M., turned out in record numbers at the desert city’s polling stations Tuesday and defeated the US anti-abortion movement's first effort to pass a municipal ban on late-term abortions.

The "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance" would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the city. According to multiple accounts, Albuquerque is home to New Mexico's only two clinics offering late-term abortions. One of those, Southwestern Women's Options, may be one of the only abortion clinics in the country that is open about providing abortions in any trimester of pregnancy, according to The New York Times, which reports that out-of-state license plates can often be seen parked in its parking lot.

Thirteen states have passed similar "fetal pain" laws, which ban abortion at 22 weeks of pregnancy or earlier, based on estimates of the point at which fetuses are thought to develop the ability to feel pain. The Albuquerque measure, which included an exception to save the life of a pregnant woman, was rejected by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.

Twenty-four percent of the city's voters turned out to vote on the measure, exceeding the turnout for a recent mayoral election by four percent.

"The vote … shuts a door that abortion opponents were trying to open at the municipal level," wrote Politico.

But anti-abortion activists say otherwise. Father Frank Pavone, national director of the New York-based Priests for Life, said in a statement cited by Al Jazeera and other news outlets: "It is a brilliant strategy, and we will see to it that this effort is introduced in other cities and states."

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national group that supports female political candidates who oppose abortion, told Politico that “despite being outspent four to one, pro-life grassroots activists were able to educate thousands of citizens about fetal pain and the reality of late abortion." That was "no small feat in a deep blue city," she said, adding, "polls show Americans are united in opposing this brutal practice.”

A Dec. 2012 Gallup poll indicates that, while 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal within the first three months of a pregnancy, only 27 percent believe it should be legal within the second trimester, and a scant 14 percent believe it should be legal during a pregnancy's final trimester.

An umbrella organization called "Respect ABQ Women" raised $680,000 to defeat the Albuquerque measure, reports Politico. The group was a coalition of abortion-rights groups, including Organizing for Action – President Obama’s political arm – and Planned Parenthood.

According to The New York Times, the referendum allowed anti-abortion groups to test their strategy of bringing the abortion fight to a local level. "They have successfully pushed for changes in zoning and for other rules that close abortion clinics or keep them from opening. Virginia’s busiest clinic, in Fairfax, closed in July after the city denied it a permit, citing inadequate parking under a recently amended ordinance," wrote the Times.

As early as August of this year, national anti-abortion activists began to focus on Albuquerque, organizing the city's first weekend-long pro-life training conference. At the end of that weekend, a large protest was organized outside the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum, in downtown Albuquerque. Young protesters with cheerful smiles held anti-abortion posters, and an immense banner reading "Albuquerque's Holocaust."

The Times also suggested that the Albuquerque fight gave political strategists insight into how abortion messages resonate among Hispanics, who account for half of Albuquerque voters and pose an interesting challenge for Republican social marketers.

“There’s not a model anywhere in the country to help us figure out whether a Catholic Hispanic woman thinks that an abortion ban that makes no exception for rape or incest has gone too far,” Pat Davis, the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, a grass-roots advocacy group, told the Times. "That, he said, “could be one of the big takeaways of this vote.”

At least seven states have enacted new laws this year restricting the services of abortion clinics, and Albuquerque's decision came on the same day the US Supreme Court refused to temporarily block Texas' new abortion regulation, which shutters any clinic operating in the absence of a doctor who has admitting privileges at a local hospital. The law is being challenged in a federal appeals court.

Albuquerque's Southwestern Women's Options, which also operates a clinic in Dallas, employs two doctors who were former colleagues of George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider who was targeted by a radical anti-abortion activist and killed in 2009.

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