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Washington Whispers: Abortion Skirmishes in the Southwest

By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.

On Jan. 22, the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, New Mexico protestors gathered to advocate for abortion access in the state
On Jan. 22, the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, New Mexico protestors gathered to advocate for abortion access in the state

From the evisceration of Roe v. Wade in June to an impending decision by a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas that may well overturn the F.D.A.’s 2000 approval of the abortion pill mifepristone—the attacks on women’s reproductive autonomy just keep coming.

In addition to the many well-publicized battles, a regional border war over abortion rights is raging now between Texas and New Mexico. And if right-wing Texans have anything to say about it, their legal incursions into New Mexico will spread to all the pro-choice states of the nation.

A Tale of Two States

Texas has the most Draconian anti-abortion laws in the U.S. The state has banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest, and only a narrow exemption for pregnant women who have a life-threatening medical emergency. Furthermore, although the Texas law apparently prohibits prosecuting a pregnant woman who undergoes an abortion, performing an abortion is now a felony punishable by up to life in prison.

On the other hand, across the border, in New Mexico, abortion remains legal. There is no waiting period and no limit on the stage of pregnancy during which abortions may be performed.

New Mexico is the only state bordering Texas where abortion is still legal. Las Cruces and Albuquerque, the two largest cities in New Mexico, have predictably become regional centers for out-of-state women in need of the procedure.

In June 2022, to protect women and their providers, Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order prohibiting cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico. This includes arrest warrants from other states related to anti-abortion provisions. The order also prohibited most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

Anticipating the large numbers of Texans who would travel to New Mexico for services, the governor followed that first order with a second in late August 2022. It directed that $10 million from her executive capital allocation for the 2023 legislative session be used for a new clinic in Doña Ana County, which borders Texas’ westernmost point.

Governor Grisham told the Washington Post in September, “As more states move to restrict and prohibit access to reproductive care, New Mexico will continue to not only protect access to abortion, but to expand and strengthen reproductive health care throughout the state.”

However, despite New Mexico’s laws, certain towns in the state near the Texas border have passed ordinances that have the effect of banning abortion within their city limits.

In November 2022, the Hobbs city commission passed an ordinance blocking abortion clinics from operating within its city limits. According to Jurist, the ordinance prevents abortion providers from being granted business licenses or operating in the city in any capacity.

It also requires businesses to follow an antiquated federal law providing that nothing designed or intended to produce an abortion can be sent through the mails or delivered by any post office or letter carrier. A violation carries a penalty of fine or imprisonment for up to five years. This is designed to make the shipment of medication or other materials to aid abortions impossible.

According to Jurist, this provision is considered unenforceable, but so-called “sanctuary cities for the unborn” like Hobbs are trying to use it to criminalize abortion within their city limits.

This kind of anti-abortion ordinance has been adopted in a number of New Mexico cities and counties in addition to Hobbs.

New Mexico Fights Back

Governor Grisham told Reuters that the Hobbs ordinance had been "authored by out-of-state extremists" and that it is "a clear affront to the rights and personal autonomy of every woman in Hobbs and southeastern New Mexico, and we will not stand for it."

She added: "Reproductive health care is legal and protected in every corner of our state. Providers delivering health care have every right to establish a practice, and all women have the right to access medication abortion services, no matter where in New Mexico they call home."

In January, New Mexico’s newly elected Democratic Attorney General Raúl Torrez petitioned the state Supreme Court to overrule the local abortion ordinances on the grounds that local officials had overstepped their authority to regulate health care access, and that their ordinances violate the New Mexico Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process.

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

In addition, Democratic state legislators have proposed a prohibition on local governments interfering with access to reproductive care such as abortion, birth control, and the prevention of or treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. There is also a proposal to protect doctors who perform abortions and their patients from harassment and investigation by out-of-state interests.

New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth told News Press Now that the aim is to “prohibit public bodies, including local municipalities, from denying, restricting or discriminating against an individual’s right to use or refuse reproductive health care, or health care related to gender.”

The Wider War

One might ask, why are the anti-abortion maneuvers of a few little New Mexico border towns and New Mexico’s counter-actions important to the nation? Because those municipal laws are part of a nationwide campaign spearheaded by right-wing anti-abortion activists. Their intention is to attack the abortion protections that remain legal in Democratic-controlled states after the Supreme court gutted Roe v. Wade, claiming the right to abortion should be left to each state to decide.

Mark Lee Dickson, head of Right to Life of East Texas and originator of the so-called Sanctuary City for the Unborn movement, has gotten more than 50 cities to adopt anti-abortion measures in Texas and other conservative states.

Not satisfied with that, Dickson’s organization is on the move to meddle in the affairs of pro-choice states. In New Mexico, which is Democratic overall, he has been expanding city abortion bans by targeting conservative-leaning towns near the eastern border.

Dickson’s under-the-radar modus operandi is to conquer city by city, one city at a time. His Texas anti-abortion group’s website claims that 65 cities and two counties across the U.S. have passed abortion bans so far. In addition to New Mexico, he and his group are planning incursions into Nebraska, Kansas, and California.

Nationally, some state officials are sitting up and taking notice. Like Gov. Grisham, Democratic governors in at least 10 other states have issued executive orders to protect abortion providers and patients from their states or who travel from other states to seek the procedure.

It is possible that the municipalities’ ordinances are the bait in yet another anti-abortion trap. While New Mexico’s state Supreme Court might find for the state, the localities could then try to take the case to federal court. And if the issue lands before the U.S. Supreme Court, the same right-wing majority that overturned Roe v. Wade could uphold the ordinances.

But to his credit, New Mexico Attorney General Torrez has no intention of backing down. “We can’t be retreating every time because we are trying to predict how ideology or politics is infecting the judicial branch. We can’t.”


Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer,

1 comment

1 Comment

Feb 18, 2023

Thank you for an informative article and keep up the good work!

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