AP

New Mexico AG seeks to codify abortion rights, nullify bans

Jan 22, 2023, 9:15 PM | Updated: Jan 23, 2023, 5:40 pm

FILE - Raúl Torrez speaks to Native American leaders during a candidates forum in Albuquerque, N.M...

FILE - Raúl Torrez speaks to Native American leaders during a candidates forum in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 14, 2022. New Mexico's top prosecutor on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, asked the state Supreme Court to nullify abortion ordinances that local elected officials have passed in recent months in conservative reaches of the Democratic-led state. Attorney General Torrez urged the high court to intervene against ordinances that he said overstep local government authority to regulate health care access, and violate the New Mexico Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top prosecutor on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to nullify abortion ordinances that local elected officials have passed in conservative reaches of the Democratic-led state.

Attorney General Raúl Torrez urged the court to intervene against recent ordinances he said overstep local government authority to regulate health care access, and violate state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

At a news conference, Torrez said the ordinances are significant even in regions with no abortion clinics because they threaten to restrict access to reproductive health care in people’s homes. More than half of U.S. abortions are now done with pills rather than surgery.

“This is not Texas. Our State Constitution does not allow cities, counties or private citizens to restrict women’s reproductive rights,” Torrez said in a statement. “Today’s action sends a strong message that my office will use every available tool to swiftly and decisively uphold individual liberties against unconstitutional overreach.”

It’s unclear how soon the New Mexico Supreme Court might take up the issue. Torrez said he hopes his petition will inspire a quick response within weeks or months.

The filing targets Roosevelt and Lea counties, and the cities of Hobbs and Clovis — in eastern New Mexico near Texas, a state where most abortion procedures are banned.

Clovis and Lea County officials declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation.

Hobbs officials said they have been transparent with their legal analysis through numerous public meetings and have fulfilled public records requests. They deny claims the ordinance bans abortions in Hobbs.

“The ordinance anticipates an abortion clinic will establish a location in Hobbs and sets minimum requisites for obtaining a business license to operate,” the city’s statement said.

In Roosevelt County, officials called the issue controversial and complex, saying they will respond through the process before the state Supreme Court.

Sentiments around abortion run deep in Roosevelt County, where commissioners adopted a resolution “in support of life” more than two years ago.

It states that “innocent human, including fetal life, must always be protected and that society must protect those who cannot protect themselves,” adding its residents would be encouraged to help those who are pregnant find health care.

Prosecutors say abortion ordinances approved in November by an all-male city council in Hobbs and in early January by Roosevelt County define “abortion clinic” in broad terms, encompassing any building beyond a hospital where an abortion is performed — or where an abortion-inducing drug is distributed or ingested.

Torrez warned Roosevelt County’s abortion ordinance gives private citizens the power to sue anyone suspected of violating the ordinance and pursue damages of up to $100,000 per violation.

“The threat of ruinous liability under the law operates to chill New Mexicans from exercising their right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy and health care providers from providing lawful medical services,” the attorney general wrote to the state Supreme Court.

In 2021, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, ensuring access to abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she seeks legislation that would codify the right to an abortion statewide.

Lawmakers have already proposed measures to prohibit local government restrictions on abortion access — and call for more protections for doctors and patients.

In June, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order barring state cooperation with other states — including on any future arrest warrants — that might interfere with abortion access. The order also prohibits most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

She also issued another executive order in August pledging $10 million to build a clinic for abortion and other pregnancy care in southern New Mexico.

The Clovis ordinance, approved in early January, is facing a petition challenge, but Mayor Mike Morris has said he thinks voters there would overwhelmingly favor keeping the ordinance if it were on the ballot.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said Monday that commissioners in his community heard hours of testimony and learned constituents were overwhelmingly in support of the ordinance.

“The City of Hobbs unequivocally supports women and women’s rights,” Cobbs said. “The future of our city, our county, and our state depends on the ability of us all to work together to find common ground — even on issues that stir emotion.”

In his filing, Torrez argues that the New Mexico Constitution provides broader protection of individual rights than the U.S. Constitution — and that the local ordinances violate New Mexicans’ inherent rights, liberty and privacy.

He also argued that the action by the city and county commissioners amount to overreach by attempting to legislate on a matter of statewide importance.

The attorney general asked the court to suspend the local abortion ordinances while deliberations continue.

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New Mexico AG seeks to codify abortion rights, nullify bans