Albuquerque voters reject ban on late-term abortions

Signs advocating for and against a late-term abortion ban hang on a fence outside a voting site at Eisenhower Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Juan Antonio Labreche / AP

By Daniel Arkin, Staff Writer, NBC News

Voters in New Mexico's largest city rejected a ban on late-term abortions Tuesday in a municipal election that was being closely watched as a possible new front in the national abortion fight.

The ballot initiative in Albuquerque — widely considered to be the first such municipal measure in the country — marked a new front in the abortion wars, which have been historically fought at the federal and state levels. Voters rejected the measure 55 percent to 45 percent.

A coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Planned Parenthood, called the results a huge victory for Albuquerque women and families.

"Albuquerque families sent a powerful message today -- they do not want the government interfering in their private medical decisions," Micaela Cadena with the Respect ABQ Women campaign said in a statement. "Dangerous, unconstitutional laws like the one we rejected today have no place in Albuquerque, no place in New Mexico, no place anywhere in our nation."

The law would have barred doctors within city limits from performing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — permitting only a small handful of exceptions provided for in most late-term abortion bans enacted in other pockets of the state in recent years.

Notably, the measure made no exemptions for victims of rape or incest.

The prohibition could have been lifted only to save a mother's life or if continuing her pregnancy ran the risk of "substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function" for the mother.

The "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance," which required a majority to pass, would have had ramifications across the state. Two of the few facilities in the rural region that perform late-term abortions are in Albuquerque.

The existence of those facilities — the Southwestern Women's Options clinic and the University of New Mexico Center for Reproductive Health — led abortion opponents to call the high-desert city "the late-term abortion capital of the country" and to eye it for the municipal prohibition, Elisa Martinez, executive director of the organization Protect ABQ Women and Children, told Reuters.

Julianna Koob, legislative advocate for Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, told Reuters that the clinics had been key resources for patients around the region.

"Because access has been so severely impacted in other cities, women do depend on the clinics here to pursue these safe medical procedures when they are facing some really heartbreaking decisions," Koob told the wire service.

The campaign drew activists and advocates from both sides of the divisive issue — as well as thousands of dollars in advertising, according to the Associated Press.

Gary King, the city's Democratic attorney general, had characterized the proposed law as "unconstitutional and unenforceable."

The measure was modeled on bans enacted by 13 states premised on controversial medical research suggesting a fetus feels pain beginning at 20 weeks of gestation.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.