Repeal of abortion statute has sense of urgency

January 22, 2019

In her State of the State address to the Legislature last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made it clear that she supports an effort to repeal a 1969 statute that makes it a fourth-degree felony for doctors to perform abortions except in cases of rape, incest, likely birth defects or to protect the life of the mother.

That law has remained on the state’s books all this time, even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

“Let us show the women of this state that we will not allow faraway federal judges to determine autonomy over their bodies,” the new governor said, as Democratic legislators cheered and Republicans scowled. “The old criminal abortion law of this state, one of only nine left in the country, must go. Bring me that bill. I will sign it.”

With the Democrats in control with the highest numbers they’ve had in years, there’s little doubt she will be signing a repeal bill early this year. But not before hours and hours of emotional hearings in which all the testimony from all sides will not change a single mind among lawmakers.

My first reaction when hearing about the repeal effort was, “Why bother?” Legal abortion still is the law of the land, and that old law will never raise its head again. I figured it’s just some archaic artifact like those weird old laws and local ordinances you read about sometimes, like it’s unlawful to hitch a horse within 35 yards of a brothel in Bumfoot, Idaho, or it’s a $30 fine for women to wear red on a Sunday in Chiggerville, Ala. Repealing this statute is one more way to clog up the session and get everyone riled for no real purpose.

But after reading a recent story by my colleague, Sarah Halasz Graham, I could see why the bill backers see repeal as more than a symbolic gesture. Basically, the state is reacting to the rightward drift of the U.S. Supreme Court. The possibility of the Supreme Court repealing Roe vs. Wade is greater now than ever. Should that happen, anti-abortion forces here would demand the 1969 statute be enforced.

“We feel a sense of urgency about repealing this old, outdated statute and cleaning up our books so that no matter what happens at the federal level, New Mexico women can continue to make those personal decisions for themselves,” Erin Armstrong, a reproductive-rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told Graham.

The issue reminds me of another effort to repeal a longstanding and long unenforced law. A law passed in 1859 — yes, back in Territorial days — made it illegal for couples to live as “man and wife” without being married. This was on our books until the year of our Lord 2001.

That year, then-Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, introduced the bill to repeal the old “blue law,” which mandated that suspected sin-living couples brought before a local magistrate and found guilty of cohabitation be ordered by the judge to “cease and desist” living together. If they persisted in their wicked ways, they could be found guilty of a petty misdemeanor — with a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and $500.

This provoked many chuckles from lawmakers and those up in the press gallery.

But, like the 50-year-old abortion law, it wasn’t a joke. Sanchez said he was prompted to introduce the repeal because the year before, an unmarried Bosque Farms couple had been charged under the cohabitation law. The case eventually was thrown out of court.

But a handful of Republicans were dead-set against repealing the cohabitation law, arguing that repealing it would only weaken the institution of marriage and, of course, would send a bad message to the children.

The Senate voted 26-5 to repeal the law. Surprising, the vote was much closer in the supposedly more liberal House, but it passed 35-29. Then-Gov. Gary Johnson signed it.

So let the debate begin on House Bill 51, sponsored by Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces. The process of repealing the long-dormant abortion bill will be tedious and draining. But, like that couple in Valencia County learned, bad laws have a way of coming back and biting people.

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