Analysis: How House bill 51 was defeated in the New Mexico Senate

The bill was alternatively referred to as “Decriminalize Abortion"

April 12, 2019

From New York to New Mexico, bills aimed at expanding or restricting access to abortion are on the rise across the United States.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, between January 1 and March 20, 2019, “304 abortion restrictions were introduced in states across the country.” Conversely, legislators in many states have introduced bills aimed at repealing or revising pre-Roe v. Wade statutes. With a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, the fight over abortion, it appears, has strategically shifted from the federal to the state level, in the event that Roe is overturned and abortion regulation is returned to the states.

If New York’s recently enacted Reproductive Healthcare Act is any indication of an upward trend in pro-abortion legislation among blue states, lawmakers in New Mexico, which concluded their 2019 legislative session March 15, appear to have bucked the trend. In a March 14 vote, the New Mexico senate defeated House Bill 51, a bill aimed at repealing several state statutes restricting abortion, by a margin of 18-24, with eight senate Democrats joining all sixteen of their Republican colleagues in voting against the measure.

House Bill 51, alternatively referred to as “Decriminalize Abortion,” would have repealed New Mexico state statutes 30-5-1, and 30-5-3, which pertain to abortion procedures and regulations in the state. A repeal of these statutes would have removed a provision requiring parental consent before a minor can receive an abortion (30-5-1), a provision requiring abortions be performed only by licensed medical doctors (30-5-1), and makes performing an abortion a fourth-degree felony (30-5-3). A previous version of the bill included a repeal of state statute 30-5-2, which protects medical professionals’ and facilities’ right to opt out of performing abortions due to conscience or faith concerns.

New Mexico is one of seven states that do not have a gestational limit for abortion, though partial-birth abortions are illegal in the state. As a result, Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, is often referred to as the “late-term abortion capital of the world.” This, coupled with the fact that two of the three doctors in the United States who perform third-trimester abortions practice in New Mexico, makes the state a haven for out-of-state abortion seekers. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 25 percent of the 4,669 abortions provided in New Mexico in 2015 were performed on out-of-state patients.

Given these statistics and the decisive Democratic majority in the state house and senate, how was New Mexico’s HB 51 defeated? Much can be speculated, but one place to start is with the grassroots actions of pro-life advocates in the state, including New Mexico Alliance for Life, Family Policy Alliance of New Mexico, The Baptist Convention of New Mexico’s Christian Life Committee, the Hispanic Action Network and the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.

During the 2019 legislative session, New Mexico Alliance for Life and Family Policy Alliance of New Mexico each concentrated heavily on social media and email newsletter blasts, providing up to the minute news and action alerts to their followers and subscribers.

Vince Torres, executive director of FPANM told the Baptist New Mexican that his organization’s “strategy to defeat HB 51 was to create a unified front with our local allies and mobilize pastors and churches to pray and engage.”

Several organizations encouraged New Mexicans to make their voices heard by calling and emailing their legislatures, often targeting key Democrats who were undecided on the issue. According to FPANM, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office received more than 10,000 phone calls in the two weeks leading up to the senate vote, 98 percent of which opposed the pending legislation.

On March 13, the day before the senate voted on HB 51, more than 500 pro-life advocates gathered at the state capital in Santa Fe to voice their opposition to the bill. Hispanic Action Network organized the rally. On the same day, NMAFL staff and volunteers hand-delivered a petition containing approximately 22,000 signatures calling for senators to vote against the measure.

On Feb. 7, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement supporting a “consistent ethic of life,” in which the organization voiced opposition to HB 51 and two other bills, aimed at legalizing assisted suicide in the state. In the statement, the Conference urged “legislators to turn their efforts away from promoting abortion, and instead to policies and legislation which would promote the prosperity of human life at all stages of development.”

According to Torres, New Mexico’s Catholic community “played a significant role in defeating HB 51.” He added, “Regardless of what the abortion industry and its lobbyists claim, New Mexico remains a pro-life majority state due in large part to our strong Catholic heritage. The Catholic Church has never wavered in its defense of human life and we are thankful that the Archbishop and the Bishops of New Mexico publicly declared their opposition to HB 51 and encouraged Catholics to engage on the issue as well.”

Elisa Martinez, executive director of New Mexico Alliance for Life echoed Torres’ sentiments, telling the Baptist New Mexican, "The strong Christian, Catholic heritage of the majority of New Mexicans absolutely played a role. Churches, pastors [and] priests across the state were engaged in this process, were speaking up—many for the first time, from the pulpit,” adding, “The people in those communities, especially in northern New Mexico, were very key. We had at least three senators from northern New Mexico that voted against this bill. Those are very highly Catholic areas of the state, [with] a strong Hispanic cultural heritage and Native American heritage. And so I think those values really affirmed the votes of their representatives [and] their senators. I don't think this is unique to the Hispanic culture, I don't think it's unique to the Native America or New Mexican culture. The majority of Americans oppose abortion extremism … We need to have some honest discussions about that moving forward."

During a March 14 senate debate immediately preceding a floor vote on HB 51, Sen. Gabriel Ramos evoked his Catholic faith as he spoke in opposition to bill, quoting a section of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement, “I support consistent ethics of life, I stand unified against any legislation that weakens the defense of life and threatens the dignity of the human being.”

In a March 28 phone interview, Sen. Ramos told the Baptist New Mexican he received approximately 800 emails, with less than one percent asking him to vote with HB 51. “The majority of the people that I did talk to, the majority of my constituents – whether it was a phone call or an email – expressed their feelings that we need to protect the unborn," he said. Ramos, a Democrat representing Catron, Grant and Socorro counties, added that he never felt “pressured by anyone [in the senate] to vote any which way.”

For Torres, “The high level of public engagement was without a doubt the main reason this bill was defeated. He added, “Several legislators stated that HB 51 prompted more phone calls, emails, letters, and office visits than any other bill this session or in recent memory. One state representative publicly remarked that in all her years of service in the legislature, she had never been lobbied by her constituents on any bill, as much as she was lobbied by them on HB 51.”

Martinez said one of the biggest things she learned while fighting the bill “is that it's critical to have unity, and for the Body of Christ to be unified. That probably was the number one factor in defeating this bill. Everyone was really taking our lead as far as staying on message and contacting the key senators. But the unified effort of all these groups coming together and the Body of Christ, be it Catholic, Christian, Baptist, [or] Evangelical, we saw a unified effort like never before.”

While many Christians in New Mexico opposed HB 51, others supported it, including several of Ramos’ legislative colleagues and governor Lujan Grisham, a self-professed Catholic. In a March 3 Albuquerque Journal op-ed, the governor stood behind the bill, saying, “

I firmly support, have always supported and have made no secret about my support for excising this statute from our books. As governor, I have pledged to sign House Bill 51, which would do exactly that.”

On Jan. 23, Catholics for Choice and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice took out a full-page ad in the Albuquerque Journal, expressing support of the legislation. The letter, signed by 90 faith-based leaders, said, in part, “[we] supports a women’s ability to access a full range of reproductive health services, including abortion.”

In the end, it appears constituent opposition of HB 51, fueled by the grassroots activism of pro-life, faith-based organizations, along with the deeply held religious convictions of some members of the state senate, outweighed the generally progressive tilt of its legislative bodies, perhaps signaling that similar results are possible in other states across the country. According to Torres, “This victory for life has given hope to other blue states and organizations fighting similar legislation, and we believe they can experience the same level of success we have.”

“When the church engages, we have the power to change the direction of our state. The church has been the sleeping giant in New Mexico for too long. During this legislative session, the church awakened from its slumber and the results speak for themselves. When the people of God stand firm and act in faith, we can still move mountains. And while we thank the good Lord for this victory and celebrate this great success, we also recognize that there is still much work to be done. This is just one of many victories needed to transform New Mexico into a state where life is cherished,” Torres said.

Martinez said that she believes several politicians and pro-life advocates in other states are encouraged by the outcome of HB 51, telling BNM, her organization has “heard from national groups and leaders, and even in national media, that Democrats now can be pro-life and can feel comfortable in that because the alternative is just so far out there. Abortion up to birth is just so extreme for the vast majority of Americans [and] New Mexicans. It's just so far out there, so I think Democrats are feeling empowered as well, to step out and proudly be pro-life."