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New Mexico voters ahead of court on abortion


No piece of legislation in the last decade has had as much impact on the New Mexico Legislature as House Bill 51 in 2019, cosponsored by Rep. Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces. It would have removed an old law still on the books criminalizing abortion that dated back to 1969, and was made unenforceable by the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

HB 51 passed 40-29 in the House, but was defeated 18-24 in the Senate, which at that time was much older and more conservative. Democrats Mary Kay Papen, John Arthur Smith, Pete Campos, Carlos Cisneros, Richard Martinez, Gabriel Ramos, George Munoz and Clemente Sanchez all voted against it.

Then the voters had their say.

In the 2020 Democratic primary election, Papen lost to Carrie Hamblen, Smith lost to Neomi Martinez Para (who then lost to Crystal Diamond Brantley in the general election), Martinez lost to Leo Jaramillo, Ramos lost to Siah Correah Hemphill and Sanchez lost to Pamela Cordova. Cisneros died of a heart attack in 2019. Only Campos and Munoz are still serving.

Between them, the five defeated senators had served for 80 years in the Senate. Papen had been president pro tempore. Smith had been chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. Martinez had been chairman of the equally powerful Judiciary Committee.

Under the 1969 law, doctors found guilty of performing an abortion in New Mexico faced a fourth-degree felony charge. If the woman died during the procedure, the charge could be enhanced to a second-degree felony.

Opponents of the bill argued that it wasn’t needed. Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, Sen. Sanchez said, and that wasn’t likely to change.

“When it does, then we’ll worry about it,” he said. Kind of like they did in Arizona.

That state also had an old law on the books that had been made invalid by Roe v. Wade, but they decided it wasn’t worth going through all the trouble to repeal it. Their law dated all the way back to 1864, a time when Arizona was still a territory and women had not yet been granted the right to vote.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week that the 1864 law is now valid again. It outlaws abortion even in cases or rape and incest, with doctors facing up to five years in prison if found guilty.

The court put a two-week hold on its ruling, and both the governor and attorney general have said they would not enforce the new law. But that will do little to reassure doctors risking five years in prison. And, the Republican-controlled state Legislature has blocked efforts to bring the issue up for a new vote in light of the court ruling.

In New Mexico, the new, younger Senate passed a bill repealing the old law in 2021 on a 25-17 vote. Campos and Muonz still voted against it, but this time it didn’t matter. And, in 2023 they passed a separate bill to prevent local governments from trying to stop abortions.

While other states are now scrambling to adjust to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, New Mexico was prepared thanks to voters who saw this coming and demanded change.


Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU. Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com