ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Three years after Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors who openly advertised that he performed late-term abortions, was killed by a protester in Wichita, Kan., two of his fellow doctors now practice at Southwestern Women’s Options, a late-term abortion clinic in Albuquerque.
And the controversy that surrounded Tiller has moved with them — though this time the battleground isn’t at the clinic door or the barrel of a gun, but rather on voters’ ballots.
On Tuesday, Albuquerque voters will be asked whether to approve a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. It’s the same kind of ban that has passed in Texas and more than a dozen other states, but this is the first time it has been put up for a direct vote and the first to cover a specific city.
Advocates say their chief target in the vote is Dr. Curtis Boyd and his staff at Southwestern Women’s Options, a nondescript one-story building just off Interstate 25 that draws patients from across the country and, according to its opponents, even from other countries.
“Because Curtis Boyd is employing George Tiller’s former abortionists, they’re being able to reap the referral system that George Tiller had in place. Because Curtis Boyd has hired Shelley Sella and Susan Robinson, he’s now taken his network,” said Tara Shaver, a pro-life missionary who was an intern for Operation Rescue in Wichita before moving to Albuquerque, where she and her husband work for Project Defending Life.
“We were literally driving to Kansas that Sunday morning when George Tiller was murdered,” Mrs. Shaver said. “Definitely not something we were happy about at all. In fact, Operation Rescue was the first org to come out condemning that because we’re pro-life and we don’t want anyone to die. We want the killing to stop.”
For both sides, Albuquerque is a test.
Pro-lifers say it’s their chance to expand the field of action. They are wondering how many other cities and counties have similar referendums that could be tapped, or city or county councils that might be open to persuasion.
For pro-choice activists, Albuquerque is a line in the sand. They believe pro-life activists have hit their limit at the state level after persuading 14 states to approve bans on abortions after 20 weeks, so they need to find new tactics in the courts or at the local level.
“If you look at the map, they’ve run out of deep-red legislatures to push abortion restrictions,” said Patrick Davis, director of ProgressNow New Mexico. “Where the movement goes next depends on what the new strategy is.”
First in the nation
Mrs. Shaver said pro-life forces had been trying the usual methods of lobbying the Democrat-controlled state Legislature, which year after year would bottle up pro-life bills in committee.
But last year, the pro-lifers watched as activists used the referendum tool to force an increase in the city’s minimum wage and wondered why they couldn’t go the same route.
They rounded up far more signatures than needed to force the issue, giving the City Council a choice: either adopt the abortion ban, amend it or send it to voters. They chose to go to the polls.
Early on, the fight played out chiefly between local groups. Pro-lifers rallied Catholic and evangelical churches in the city, and pro-choice advocates organized women’s groups under the umbrella Respect ABQ Women.