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In New Mexico, anti-abortion activists take abortion restrictions local

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Anti-abortion activists are looking for new ways to restrict access, even in places where abortion remains legal under state law. Take New Mexico, a Democratic-controlled state where the governor has signed legislation protecting reproductive health care. But this week, a town of about 6,000 people pushed back against that law after a meeting that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is a battle against good and evil.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One neighbor telling on some other neighbor, which I just think is a horrible thing to do to people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: God will judge us - be sure of it - for innocent blood that's on our hands.

MCCAMMON: Those are voices from Edgewood, N.M., about 30 miles outside Albuquerque. Residents of the Edgewood area crowded into the town commission's small hearing room and spent hours debating whether to pass an anti-abortion ordinance. Sarah Gerlitz told her neighbors that her husband, Edward, was at home taking care of their 18-month-old daughter. She said the family had recently moved here.

SARAH GERLITZ: I was hoping my first town commission meeting would be more in the lines of infrastructure improvements, but I was compelled to come speak here in person to please request no and to not limit my ability to choose my rights on my own body.

MCCAMMON: The ordinance is designed to block the mailing of abortion pills and other abortion-related items to Edgewood, and residents could sue other residents for violating it. Three other towns and two counties in New Mexico have approved their own anti-abortion ordinances. The governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, recently signed a law taking effect in June that expressly forbids such local restrictions on abortion. Communities that violate the law could face expensive lawsuits and civil penalties.

Anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson, who also attended the meeting, has been promoting local bans around the country. Most have had little real-world impact before last summer's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Since then, more than a dozen states have banned abortion. But Dixon told me he's concerned that people are just traveling to states where abortion is legal.

MARK LEE DICKSON: This was a common happening all across America that the abortion industry, if they were in a state where abortion was banned, they were looking at crossing the border.

MCCAMMON: New Mexico has become a hub for abortion providers and patients. And Democratic state leaders like Attorney General Raul Torrez are taking steps to shore up access.

RAUL TORREZ: I fundamentally believe that local governments don't have the authority, under our state constitution, to infringe on a woman's right to control access to reproductive health care.

MCCAMMON: Torrez sued several of these communities that passed anti-abortion ordinances, and the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a stay blocking them. But in Edgewood, some residents, like Lindsey Donner, feel that leaders in the statehouse and the governor's mansion don't represent them.

LINDSEY DONNER: It's time for Edgewood to take a stand for life and stand against the demonic agenda being pushed by the leaders in Santa Fe. Standing for this ordinance is not only standing for life but also taking a stand against the tyranny in Santa Fe.

MCCAMMON: Others, like Laura Aston, argued that local commission members were focusing on divisive issues when they should be more worried about things like roads.

LAURA ASTON: Abortion access is not currently illegal in the state of New Mexico, so I'm not understanding why the commission of a very small town is taking the time and the resources to try to make it illegal. I'm a Christian.

MCCAMMON: Just as she brought up her own faith alongside her support for abortion rights, someone in the audience interrupted her and muttered, if you were really a Christian, questioning the sincerity of her faith.

ASTON: Well, you can argue it, and I can argue yours also. I don't think that my religion should affect everyone else.

MCCAMMON: But some abortion rights opponents here say they expect and even embrace the idea of court fights. These anti-abortion proposals in Edgewood and elsewhere have been carefully crafted to cite a mostly overlooked federal law from 1873 called the Comstock Act, which forbids the mailing of abortion-related items. New Mexico attorney Mike Seibel insists that law is still valid nationwide. Normally, he works as a medical malpractice lawyer, often focusing on suing abortion providers.

MIKE SEIBEL: You can call me a vulture or an ambulance chaser or whatever you want.

MCCAMMON: But now Siebel wants to force the federal courts to weigh in on Comstock and say it still applies to sending abortion pills and other items through the mail. He's involved in a lawsuit against New Mexico state officials on behalf of Eunice, one of the towns that passed an anti-abortion ordinance. And he hopes that case, or one like it, will find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SEIBEL: If we're successful and it goes to the Supreme Court, I think there would be a national abortion ban.

MCCAMMON: The Biden administration said last year that Comstock does not prohibit the mailing of abortion pills in places where abortion is legal. New Mexico Attorney General Torrez says this push to restrict abortion, even in states where it's legal, is a misuse of this 19th-century law.

TORREZ: Well, frankly, this entire charade is exactly that.

MCCAMMON: Torrez is one of 17 attorneys general who are part of a federal lawsuit designed to protect access to the abortion pill mifepristone. They filed the suit in Washington State in response to ongoing litigation from anti-abortion groups that want to cut off access to the widely used drug.

TORREZ: There was this pretense - right? - that now this question would no longer be addressed at the federal level. And I think what we have seen is that there was never really any intention to let states and individual representative bodies and state courts articulate how they were going to address this question.

MCCAMMON: While restrictions like the ones in Edgewood may never be enforceable under New Mexico's laws, people here now are all too aware that they're living in an increasingly divided community. As the meeting dragged on, Edward Peck (ph), the husband who was home taking care of his daughter, dialed in over Zoom. He said he and his wife, Sarah, are thinking of having more kids, but they're worried because she's in a high-risk age bracket for miscarriage, which mifepristone is also used to treat.

EDWARD PECK: This ordinance would not allow her to have the medication that she would need in the tragic event that she miscarried and would not allow us to take care of that at home and in comfort. So I'm urging you to vote no.

MCCAMMON: Sometime around 1:40 in the morning on Wednesday, the town commission finally voted 4 to 1 to approve the Edgewood ordinance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We did pass ordinance 2023-002.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAMMON: Just before voting yes, Commissioner Sterling Donner framed the decision as part of a larger battle.

STERLING DONNER: It's time to fight. It's time to rise up and to fight for not just our rights but the rights of these unborn children that don't ever have a chance. So by doing this, we're making a statement.

MCCAMMON: The New Mexico ACLU says it's preparing to file an amicus brief on Monday in support of the state attorney general's efforts to protect abortion access across New Mexico, including in Edgewood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.