PHOENIX - Albuquerque may wind up with the nation's first local ban on some abortions after activists collected enough signatures to put the issue before voters in New Mexico's largest city.
The move to circumvent the Democrats who run the state legislature and target a clinic in the city comes as abortion foes have racked up unprecedented statehouse victories. Opponents have begun to take their fight to city halls by pushing measures to impose new limits and, if they succeed in Albuquerque, may expand their use of the tactics, said Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser at Operation Rescue.
"We will take it to the local level if that is what we need to do," said Sullenger, whose Wichita-based group opposes abortion. "Let's zone them out. Let's take any opportunity available to us."
The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance proposed in Albuquerque would impose a citywide ban on terminating pregnancies after 20 weeks, similar to laws passed in at least 10 states since 2010, including Arizona and Texas. A court struck down the Arizona law while other states have put the new rules on hold pending court review. Attempts to pass such limits have been stymied in the New Mexico legislature, said Tara Shaver, the ballot initiative campaign organizer in Albuquerque.
"What else can we do to save women and children from abortion?" said Shaver, 29, who is also a spokeswoman for Project Defending Life, a Catholic group in the city that opposes the procedure.
Shaver relocated with her husband to New Mexico in 2010 to be "pro-life missionaries" after interning at Operation Rescue. "We thought, let's see what we can do at the city level," she said.
Abortion foes already have used zoning changes and other municipal tactics to close clinics elsewhere in the country. In July, Virginia's busiest provider of the service closed after changes in state and local rules, said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, a reproductive-rights advocacy group based outside Washington in Alexandria.
NOVA Women's Healthcare, a clinic that performed more than 3,000 abortions last year, sought to relocate within Fairfax, a Washington suburb, after its landlord sued in part because of protests by anti-abortion groups, Keene said.
After identifying a building on Main Street that could meet new state clinic requirements slated to take effect next year, Fairfax rejected its application in May, citing insufficient parking, Keene said. In July, the City Council passed rules reclassifying clinics as medical-care facilities, requiring a $4,800 special-use permit and council approval.
"They were hit on all sides from a policy standpoint and, unfortunately, the women's health facility was not able to overcome the obstacles that these politicians put in their way to remain open and offer services to their patients," Keene said, adding that the facility also provided birth control, cancer screenings and other health services to women.
Similar restrictions were put in place in Virginia's Stafford County, blocking clinics from opening there, Keene said. The county is about halfway between Washington and Richmond, the state capital.
"This is definitely a new tactic that the anti-choice side of this debate is taking," Keene said. "You can target where these facilities are located at the county, city or town level."
That's the strategy now being pursued in Wichita, Kan., where protesters try to intercept patients on a daily basis to stop abortions at a clinic in the building where murdered doctor George Tiller, a provider of the service, once practiced. The killer said he did it to save unborn babies, according to accounts of his trial.
Mark Gietzen, director of the Kansas Coalition for Life, the local group that fields the protesters, said he and other activists are pushing the planning commission and the Wichita City Council to rezone the area where the clinic, the South Wind Women's Center, is located. They contend that potential for violence there poses a risk to the surrounding residential neighborhood, he said.
"We wouldn't shed any tears if they weren't able to open elsewhere," he said by telephone, speaking as he stood outside the clinic handing anti-abortion literature to patients as they went into the building.
In Albuquerque, a city of about 555,000, the proposed ban targets Southwestern Women's Options, which performs abortions after 25 weeks gestation and works with women who discover fetal abnormalities, according to its website.
Operation Rescue calls it the "largest late-term abortion clinic in the U.S." and says it draws women from across the country. A spokeswoman didn't respond immediately to a telephone message seeking comment yesterday.
Shaver and her campaign collected almost 27,000 voter signatures in 20 days - more than twice the number needed - to put the proposed ban before voters, she said. The city clerk's office certified that they had the required 12,091 valid signatures last week and the City Council now must set a date for the vote.
Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, said he'll recommend a mail-in election on Nov. 19, in a memo to fellow council members. If a run-off vote for city offices is needed, it could take place on that date, Lewis said. A separate special election would cost about $600,000, said City Clerk Amy Bailey.
If voters pass the measure, it will wind up costing the city and taxpayers even more, said Alexandra Smith, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which has joined with other groups to form the Respect ABQ Women campaign to oppose the measure. Her organization will sue because the ban would be an unconstitutional limit to the right to an abortion guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.
"We believe it is very important that women have the ability to make these complicated personal decisions, and they should be making these decisions with their doctors," she said. "It is not a decision that should be decided by anyone else."