This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, an nonprofit investigative news organization, and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Paper.
PORTALES — Eastern New Mexico, the latest battleground in New Mexico’s fight over abortion, drew 100 people from across the state on Tuesday as Roosevelt County Commissioners overwhelmingly passed an ordinance to severely limit access to reproductive rights.
The county is one of several communities on the Texas border now seeking to prohibit abortion access, but its ordinance uses a different tactic to enforce it. It prohibits the operation of abortion clinics, restricts mail carriers from delivering abortion-related supplies and medicines, and gives private citizens the power to sue anyone they suspect of violating the ordinance.
By comparison, the city of Hobbs, the town of Clovis and Lea County have all passed similar ordinances that call for enforcement by government prosecutors.
Legal experts say these ordinances present a violation of civil rights and will not survive court challenges. Ellie Rushworth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, denounced them for “[causing] confusion and fear in our communities, all while potentially exposing communities to significant legal liability.”
New Mexico’s Attorney General is prepared to counsel county and local governments on their legal limitations, according to Lauren Rodriguez, the office’s press secretary.
“If those entities persist, Attorney General [Raúl] Torrez will take formal, legal action to stop any unconstitutional restrictions on anyone attempting to access reproductive healthcare in New Mexico,” Rodriguez said in an email.
Though New Mexico currently protects reproductive health care, the right to abortion is not in the legal books. The state needs to pass a law or a constitutional amendment — or a court needs to issue a ruling — for the right to be fully protected, according to legal experts.
In an email to Searchlight New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed outrage at the latest attempt to ban abortion access. She has repeatedly committed to codifying abortion protections in the 2023 legislative session, which is set to open next week.
“These resolutions, authored by out-of-state extremists working to further their special interest agenda, is a clear affront to the rights and personal autonomy of every woman in eastern and southeastern New Mexico, and we will not stand for it,” she said.
Nonetheless, such local ordinances have had a chilling effect throughout Eastern New Mexico, a conservative area that anti-abortion activists clearly view as an incubator for their national agenda.
“They have a long game plan,” said Laura Wight, co-founder of Eastern New Mexico Rising, a civil rights organization based in Clovis. “They are testing the grounds to see how far they can get in New Mexico. If they’re successful here, Mark Lee Dickson has said himself, they are going to go to other blue states to do the same thing.”
As if to prove her point, Dickson, a Texas pastor who takes credit for 64 anti-abortion bans across the country, showed up at Tuesday’s event to address the crowd and lay out his agenda.
“This is not an explicit abortion ban, but it is what I call a de-facto abortion ban,” said Dickson, co-founder of Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn. He claimed that these kinds of local ordinances are already proving successful and that a planned reproductive health clinic in Hobbs was forced to move to Albuquerque after the city passed a “sanctuary for the unborn” ordinance.
And he offered the pro bono services of Jonathan F. Mitchell, former solicitor general of Texas and the lawyer behind that state’s anti-abortion legislation, to any New Mexico county or city that faces a legal challenge to its abortion ban.
Pro-abortion activists agree that the spate of local measures has already made life difficult for Texans seeking abortions in New Mexico’s border towns.
“It’s very daunting, it’s absolutely purposeful, and it’s very targeted,” said Krista Pietsch, a Portales resident and member of Eastern New Mexico Rising. “Anyone coming from Texas would have to go to Albuquerque. For any of us who live in Eastern New Mexico, it’s a 200-plus one-way [drive].”
According to Wight, the ordinance adds a dangerous layer to an ongoing crisis of access to adequate health care in rural New Mexico, where basic health care is limited and access to maternal health is almost nonexistent.
“Why is our local government so obsessed and fixated on this abortion issue when we can’t even provide regular care for our folks?” she asked.