As Albuquerque Voters Consider A 20-Week Abortion Ban, Here’s What’s At Stake For The Entire Country

CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Antonio Labreche

Albuquerque voters will head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their ballots on a measure that would outlaw abortions past 20 week of pregnancy. It marks the culmination of a contentious campaign that’s captured national attention. Over the past several weeks, a truck with graphic images of bloody fetuses has been driving around the city, some trick-or-treaters received anti-abortion propaganda mixed in with their Halloween candy, “abortion holocaust survivors” have protested at the city’s Holocaust museum, money from outside groups has poured in, and a record number of people have already turned out for early voting.

Why are all eyes focused on New Mexico’s most populous city? Ultimately, because the outcome of this week’s vote could have implications that extend far beyond the city limits. If Albuquerque residents decide to approve the 20-week ban, here’s what it would mean for the state of abortion rights throughout the nation:

The first-ever citywide ban on abortion.

20-week abortion bans are successfully advancing in states across the U.S. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 states have now passed this type of restriction on later abortion (although several of those laws have been blocked from taking effect). If Albuquerque ends up enacting one, it will be the first city to impose its own local ban on the procedure, signaling that the anti-choice community is prepared to take a more localized approach.

A huge blow to women’s abortion access across the country.

Abortion opponents targeted Alburquerque for a reason. It’s home to the Southwestern Women’s Options Clinic, one of the only clinics left in the entire country that still performs third-trimester abortion services in the aftermath of Dr. George Tiller’s murder. There are only four doctors who openly perform these late abortion services — all former colleagues of Dr. Tiller’s — and two of them work at the clinic in Albuquerque. The other two late-term clinics are in Maryland and Colorado. Women from across the country travel to these three locations to receive the type of abortion care that is not offered in their home states.

But if Albuquerque enacts a 20-week ban, Southwestern Women’s Options will be forced to stop providing these later abortion services, and U.S. women’s choices will narrow even further. It will amount to a late-term abortion ban for the entire state of New Mexico, and for most of the surrounding region, too.

A restriction that disproportionately hurts women in desperate circumstances.

Abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy are very rare, making up an estimated 1.5 percent of all abortions nationwide. But even though banning these procedures impacts a relatively small number of women, it’s important to remember that they typically put a strain on the women who are already in very desperate circumstances.

Many of the women who need later abortion care have discovered serious fetal abnormalities that will prevent their unborn child from surviving outside the womb, or cause them to experience great suffering until their early death. These type of health issues are often impossible to detect before 20 weeks, so the women who eventually discover them sometimes decide that a later abortion is the compassionate choice for their pregnancy. And some low-income women need this procedure because they’ve been forced to delay their abortion while they’ve struggled to save up the money for it, or because it’s been too hard for them to make the trip to a clinic. Ultimately, some of those desperate women may resort to dangerous methods to end a pregnancy if their access to health care is cut off.

When Americans understand more about the complex circumstances under which women may need a later abortion, they tend to oppose 20-week bans.

A model for the anti-choice community in other blue states.

Blue-leaning New Mexico has been largely uninterested in wading into the fight over abortion rights. The state’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, has declined to get involved in Albuquerque’s current ballot initiative. But the anti-abortion community is taking advantage of the fact that New Mexico offers generous home rule to its largest cities, and started pushing for a local ban when they couldn’t get any statewide measures past the legislature. “It is a sign that the anti-abortion movement is coming for blue states,” MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reported from the ground last week. “If the Albuquerque ordinance passes, abortion foes can say they have bipartisan momentum on their side.”

Not every city in the U.S. is structured like New Mexico, a place where some local laws are allowed to supersede state laws. But even if the anti-choice community can’t push for multiple city-wide bans, it can still focus its attention on local targets. That strategy is already evident. Groups like Operation Rescue, which has been spearheading the fight for the 20-week ban, often put pressure on individual abortion clinics — narrowing access on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a sweeping legislative ban. The president of the group has suggested they’ll keep it up. “If you can’t get anything done in a state legislature…you look at what is going on in a city. They say all politics is local. This is a great example of that,” he told Reuters in September.

Increased momentum for misleading “fetal pain” laws.

20-week abortion bans — often called “fetal pain” laws, since they’re based on the scientifically inaccurate claim that fetuses can feel pain at that point — are becoming a flash point in the national debate over reproductive rights. In addition to the rush of state laws, the U.S. House of Representative passed a national 20-week ban in June, and the Senate introduced one just earlier this month.

The anti-choice community is pushing these measures because it helps them position themselves as moderate, and because it’s easy to leverage the emotional outrage that typically surrounds later abortions. But in this context, “fetal pain” is a lie. Twenty weeks is an arbitrary cut-off, and medical professionals agree that fetuses don’t feel pain before the third trimester. In fact, even the few scientists who have explored the field of “fetal pain,” and whose work is now repeatedly cited to justify 20-week abortion bans, recently told the New York Times that they never intended their research to be used to restrict reproductive rights.

But abortion opponents continue to use this talking point without necessarily being challenged on it. And if Albuquerque passes a 20-week ban, it will provide even more ammunition for the anti-choice community to keep pushing junk science.