20-Week Abortion Ban Coming To Cities?

Anti-abortion activists’ favorite restriction of the last couple of years — banning abortions after 20 weeks — has gone from the state level to the federal level. Now, in New Mexico, it's going local. In a week, Albuquerque residents will vote on whether to ban all abortions after 20 weeks, which would make it the first municipality to do so. But don’t let the fact that this is a local ordinance fool you; the Albuquerque law would significantly chip away at abortion accessibility throughout New Mexico.

For one, the only abortion clinic in the state that offers abortions at or after 20 weeks is located in Albuquerque, so banning the procedure at the city level is effectively banning it at the state level as well. And unlike many of the 20-week bans enacted in other states, Albuquerque’s unwieldily-titled “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance” doesn’t allow exceptions for rape and incest. Even the wording of the ballot measure is drawing criticism: Rather than provide a paragraph summary of the bill, the City Council opted to place a full-length copy of the bill’s text, which clocks in at around 1,250 words, on the ballot. A city clerk says she’s received an “unbelievable” number of calls from early voters asking to clear up what they’re actually voting on. Check out a sample ballot here.

The strategy employed by Project Defending Life, the Albuquerque-based Catholic group that’s pushed the ban, arose in part after statewide abortion restrictions kept getting knocked down in federal courts, and it could easily be applied elsewhere in the country. By identifying states in which only one city performs abortions, such as North Dakota, and then pushing abortion restrictions in those cities, abortion opponents could effectively enact statewide abortion bans by passing citywide ordinances. That doesn’t immunize such restrictions from courts, of course, and the Albuquerque measure will undoubtedly be immediately challenged if it passes. Still, city laws usually attract far less media attention than state or federal legislation, which could at least place this strategy under less of a spotlight.

"It is a new strategy,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue. “There is more than one way to close an abortion clinic.”

In early September, a poll showed Albuquerque residents supporting the measure, by a 54 to 39 margin. Nevertheless, ProgressNowNM has launched a campaign to defeat it, and is running ads, a Get Out The Vote operation, and has enlisted pro-choice Catholic leaders to lobby against the measure.