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“We welcome them as hermanas”: How the Arizona abortion decision has impacted safe havens like New Mexico

By Michael Jones

I quickly lost count of the number of conversations I had with reproductive freedom experts and activists two years ago ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the national right to abortion care who said the ruling would end abortion—it would just make it harder to get one.

The data has proven the prediction to be true: The number of abortions in the US increased in 2023, the first full calendar year after Dobbs decision, despite 21 states passing abortion bans with limited exceptions or that restrict access to the procedure based on the period of time between conception and birth, also known as gestational duration.

In the wake of an Arizona Supreme Court decision that held up its almost 160-year near-total abortion ban and a Florida high court ruling that permitted the state to ban abortion, states like New Mexico absorbed the influx of patients fleeing abortion restrictions for what could be life-saving care.

“We welcome them as hermanas, we welcome them as sisters because we know they are looking for health care. And sometimes the health care is to have an abortion and sometimes it is to get the care you need because of the complications of pregnancy,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) told me this week at the US Capitol. “This is what those politicians don’t understand: We die in pregnancy. Pregnancy is a very difficult medical process. Sometimes it’s beautiful and natural and nothing goes wrong—but oftentimes, things go wrong.”

The bottom line for Leger Fernandez: “Anybody who is supporting any kind of abortion ban is putting the lives of women who are pregnant at risk and that is wrong. So anybody who is a woman or anybody who loves a woman should be against what the Republicans are doing.”

She added that people seeking reproductive health care from Florida to the West have to travel to her state.

“We have been receiving what I call ‘reproductive health care refugees’ because they are coming to us,” she said. “We have seen a significant increase, in some places, a 287-percent increase in care provided to women in New Mexico.”

Gabe Vasquez, a first-term House Democrat representing a frontline district in New Mexico, told me that he wished states like Texas and Arizona had the ability to restore women’s healthcare rights, but that the politics don’t lend themselves to that reality. (Arizona’s state legislature blocked attempts to repeal the ban yesterday.)

“So New Mexico will continue to provide those services to women that are not just traveling from Texas and Arizona, but from Florida, from Oklahoma, from Alabama, Mississippi—from all of these places that have somehow restricted these rights.”

Leger Fernandez, who also serves as a senior member of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, said New Mexico state government appropriated $10 million dollars to help fund a Planned Parenthood facility in the southern part of the state.

Vasquez added that the state is using its resources to invest in the infrastructure that it will take to support the patients that New Mexico will absorb from neighboring states.

“We will continue to be a safe haven,” he said. “And we’re very proud of that.”

The 1864 ban was written 48 years before Arizona became a state and includes no exceptions for health, rape or incest. It will wipe out nearly all access to abortion care in the state, which currently has a 15-week ban. A coalition backing an amendment to enshrine abortion in the Arizona constitution says it has enough signatures to appear on the ballot, giving voters the chance to weigh in this November. The state’s attorney general said she wouldn’t prosecute women who receive abortion care or doctors who perform it under the ban.

Republicans in the state attempted to appear moderate on the issue despite their previous anti-abortion positions.

GOP Senate candidate Kari Lake said she opposed the Arizona court’s decision but in 2022 called abortion the ultimate sin. She celebrated the Dobbs decision and even once supported the 1864 law she now claims to reject.

Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) called the 1864 ban archaic but called the day the Dobbs decision came down “historic” and said the states should determine abortion rights.

Former GOP Rep. Yvette Harrell, who’s challenging Vasquez for the seat he flipped in 2022, co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act in 2021—a personhood bill that made no exceptions for in vitro fertilization. Harrell has scrubbed her anti-abortion record from her campaign website.

“She has now changed her tune in the same way that the former president has to make Americans believe that they have taken a softer approach and a softer stance on this,” Vasquez said. “The truth to Americans is that the damage is done. Roe v. Wade has been overturned and these rights are going to continue to be chipped away at.”

The Arizona decision came a day after former President Trump released a four-minute video that attempted to frame himself as temperate on the abortion debate to moderate and independent voters while hugging the anti-abortion movement he relied on to ascend to the highest office in the land in 2016. 

Trump stopped short on whether he would veto a nationwide abortion ban that roughly half of House Republicans have cosponsored. He didn’t express opposition to bans without exceptions like Arizona’s or discuss how he would vote as a Florida resident on the state’s ballot initiative to codify the right to abortion care in the state this fall. There was also no mention of how a second Trump administration would handle the abortion pill mifepristone or birth control. 

Following the Dobbs decision that overturned the national right to abortion care almost two years ago, states where abortion care is in potential jeopardy are on high alert their state could be next.

“The key is that New Mexicans recognize that if we reelect [former President Donald] Trump, if we re-elect a Republican leadership in the House, that we will lose our rights,” Leger Fernandez told me. “And so Arizona is a wake-up call to us, not just to provide reproductive health to Arizonans, but that [the anti-abortion movement is] going to come after our care.”

Vasquez agreed that Republicans are marching toward a nationwide abortion ban.

“We can’t believe Republicans because they change their stance on this issue based on the latest poll they received,” he said. “That’s not acceptable because we’re talking about a fundamental right for American citizens. We can’t legislate based on polls. And that’s what Republicans are doing in Congress.”

The importance of women in positions of power to authentically speak to the realities of childbirth.

“I suffered through pregnancy-related complications and actually almost died when I was pregnant because it is a very fragile time in terms of our body reacting—things can go wrong and we can almost start bleeding to death,” Leger Fernandez said. “And so it is important to have women who’ve gone through these experiences who can speak to that.”

Ultimately, she said, reproductive healthcare decisions are personal and should be beyond the reach of politicians.

“I remember when I was making decisions about my health care and I got to talk to my family. I got to pray to the Santos and Virgen de Guadalupe and the people I believe are important and then make the decision,” she said. “So I bring that experience to Congress and then I help other women get elected and I am working on helping women, including Latinas, get elected this November.”

But for Vasquez, men should also shoulder some of the burden in the fight to restore reproductive freedom.

“It’s up to me, a Latino man from a border district, from a purple district, to stand up strongly for women’s rights and we’re going to continue to do that and that’s going to be part of our campaign,” he said. “It’s also gonna be part of the work that I do here in Congress.”

Michael Jones is an independent Capitol Hill correspondent and contributor for COURIER. He is the author of Once Upon a Hill, a newsletter about Congressional politics.

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