On Tuesday, residents of Albuquerque will vote on a measure prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Although the special election is at the local level, it will determine the fate of late-stage abortion throughout the state, since the only clinic in New Mexico currently offering the procedure after 20 weeks is in Albuquerque. Most disturbing is that if the measure passes, and perhaps even if it doesn’t, the pro-life movement will turn its attention to cities in states where they have otherwise had difficulty pushing their agenda. The lack of oversight at the municipal level gives these groups an unusually dangerous platform from which to manipulate voters and spread misinformation.
There are many reasons for national pro-life groups to home in on cities rather than continue to pursue change at the state and federal levels. With a Democrat-controlled Senate, passing anti-abortion legislation at the national level is all but impossible.
“The higher you go, the harder it gets,” said Cheryl Sullenger, Senior Policy Advisor at Operation Rescue, one of the national pro-life groups campaigning in Albuquerque. “At the federal level, it’s really, really difficult to get legislation put in, especially in a more moderate legislative environment.”
Abortion restrictions introduced at the state level face their own set of challenges, most significantly that they are regularly overturned when challenged in court. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined, without comment, to hear an appeal in a case that would force Oklahoma women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound first. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether Texas can require abortion clinics to have admitting privileges to nearby hospitals. Similar requirements for admitting privileges in Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Wisconsin have been blocked by opponents.
In cities, pro-life activists see a new opportunity to advance their goals. These activists view Albuquerque as the “late-term abortion capital of the country,” because the private clinic there, Southwestern Women’s Options, is one of a few in the country that offers abortion after six months of pregnancy. Although, if succesful, it will likely be challenged in court as well, the law would open the door for anti-abortion activists to bring their fight back to states where they have already been defeated.
“I think [Albuquerque] is the testing ground,” said Julianna Koob, a legislative advocate for Planned Parenthood of New Mexico. “[Albuquerque voters] are carrying the weight of making a decision on behalf of Albuquerque residents, New Mexico residents, and really on behalf of the country because this is a testing ground for a strategy that we haven’t seen before.”
The full text of the Albuquerque measure, about 1,250 words of legislative writing, appears on the ballot without providing voters a summary. It includes misleading scientific information about fetal pain, and it doesn’t provide exceptions for rape or incest.
“The people who really understand what a hardship [the measure] would be for women and their families … they still get in there, and they’re so confused because of the way the ballot measure is written,” said Koob. “We are literally saying over and over again, if you want to stand with women, if you want to stand with doctors, you have to vote against this measure. It’s been crucial for us to say the word ‘against’ over and over again.”
The ballot also includes inaccurate scientific information to “confuse and mislead,” according to Koob. Anti-abortion activists frequently claim fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. (Sullenger told me, “Actually, scientists have determined babies feel pain before [20 weeks].”) This assertion is included in the lengthy ballot text, even though leading medical associations have declared it false. The only exception in the measure, for cases where the mother’s life is in immediate danger, is so narrow that it is effectively rendered meaningless. If a woman finds out, for example, that she has cancer after her twentieth week of pregnancy, seeking an abortion so she could obtain the proper treatment for herself would most likely be illegal.
If Operation Rescue and its supporters are successful in Albuquerque—and perhaps even if they aren’t—they will bring these tactics to other cities. “There’s a few states where we’ve been unable to have any movement whatsoever,” Sullenger said. “There are other cities where we think this could be very effective ... Let’s see what happens with Albuquerque before we start planning our next campaign, but I would say states like California, states like New York, maybe Oregon, Washington State—or some on the East Coast, northern New England states. There’s a whole possibility.”
Meanwhile, the TV commercials, neighborhood canvassing, and other marketing campaigns on which both sides have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars continue in Albuquerque. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Journal called abortion an issue that cannot be meaningfully dealt with at a local level in an editorial, yet the measure in Albuquerque is already being seen as a model for future municipal campaigns. If you live in a blue state where pro-life groups have traditionally been unable to gain ground, as in Albuquerque, an anti-abortion “Truth Truck” emblazoned with pictures of a dismembered fetus may soon be coming to a city near you.