Party-line vote kills late-term abortion bills

Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican
State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, holds up a picture of his granddaughter Scarlet Sharer 2 hours after she was born at the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday while discussing Senate Bill 242 and 243. Scarlet was born one month premature.

SANTA FE – A lengthy hearing full of emotional, deeply personal stories and rhetoric about abortion that has been offered by both sides of the debate for decades, didn't change any minds on a state Senate committee Tuesday. The panel voted along party lines to effectively kill two bills that would have prohibited most late-term abortions in New Mexico.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, a longtime anti-abortion advocate, sponsored both bills. One measure, Senate Bill 243, would have banned late-term abortions of viable fetuses at least 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Sharer's SB 242 — also rejected Tuesday by the Senate Public Affairs Committee — was almost identical, although that bill contained exceptions for rape and incest.

Sharer said that in sponsoring the bills, he was not condemning anyone.

"I know that these are tough [decisions]," he said. "I do wish that both sides were more reserved and respectful." Referring to those in the committee room watching the hearing, he said "My prayer is that people behind me consider what we're doing."

He showed photographs of his own granddaughter who was born prematurely, weighing 4 pounds at birth, he said. "Is Scarlet human?" he asked rhetorically. "If the mother has an illness, does that qualify Scarlet to become a lab experiment?"

State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, listens to public comments against Senate Bill 242 and 243 at the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, also shared a story about premature births. She said that she twice experienced pregnancies that ended in premature births. The babies each only lived for a few minutes because their lungs had not yet formed. Stewart pointed out that both were born weeks after the 20-week mark in Sharer's bills.

"I do believe that [Sharer's legislation] is government interference," Stewart said. "We shouldn't be telling women what to do with their bodies." Stewart also pointed out that the number of abortions is declining, which she said is due to fewer schools teaching "abstinence-only" sex education and better availability of contraceptives under the national Affordable Care Act.

Some Democrats on the committee objected to testimony by Elisa Martinez, president of New Mexico Alliance For Life. Martinez pointed to a September 2013 poll conducted for The Albuquerque Journal that she said showed a majority support banning late-term abortions. The poll showed 54 percent of respondents supported such a ban while only 30 percent opposed it.

However, committee chairman Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, pointed out that voters in Albuquerque overwhelmingly turned down a ballot question on banning late-term abortions in November 2013. About 55 percent of voters opposed the ballot question while 45 percent supported it.

Martinez said the question that appeared on the ballot was confusing. "Women are often misled by the abortion industry," she said.

"Are you saying Albuquerque voters are stupid?" Sen. Bill O'Neill, D-Albuquerque asked her later at the hearing.

In both of Sharer's bills, doctors performing prohibited late-term abortions would be guilty of a fourth-degree felony, which carries prison sentences up to 18 months. A doctor found guilty would be fined at least $5,000 have his medical license suspended or revoked for at least a year.

The bills also would have allowed the biological father or the family of the woman having the abortion to sue — unless the pregnancy was caused by rape or other illegal actions or if the person bringing the lawsuit had consented to the procedure.