Voters in Albuquerque easily defeated a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, dealing a major blow Tuesday to pro-life advocates who had hoped that a win using the city's referendum process would be a model that other municipalities could follow.
The groundbreaking vote marked the first time a city had been asked to approve an abortion ban, and national groups on both sides of the issue were closely watching to see how it would turn out.
Pro-choice advocates, including President Obama's own campaign team, rallied to stop the referendum, arguing that if they didn't nip the city-by-city strategy now, it could spread to other cities and become a new front in the abortion fight.
Advocates of the ban admitted defeat late Tuesday, but said they don't feel discouraged.
"It is a brilliant strategy and we will see to it that this effort is introduced in other cities and states," said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. "The fact is, of course, that children have in fact been saved through this effort, simply because we have raised the issue of fetal pain, which does not even cross the minds of many abortionists."
With all voting centers reporting Wednesday morning, the referendum was defeated 55 percent to 45 percent — a substantial margin of victory for pro-choice advocates.
Pro-life activists said they got the idea of putting abortion directly to voters in Albuquerque after watching labor advocates use the tool last year to raise the city's minimum wage.
The referendum they tried to pass this year was similar to laws passed in more than a dozen states in recent years that would ban abortions after the point at which some scientists say that fetuses can feel pain.
Known as the pain capable unborn child ordinance, the proposal would have prevented abortions 20 weeks after conception, except in cases where the mother's life was at risk or where the mother could suffer serious health consequences from continuing the pregnancy.
The ban's chief target was Southwestern Women's Options, a clinic in the city that advertises abortions up to 28 weeks. Two of the doctors at the clinic came from Wichita, where they used to work with Dr. George Tiller, an abortionist who regularly drew protests and was killed by an anti-abortion advocate in 2010.
Pro-life advocates say they were outspent four-to-one in advertising on the campaign, which they said helps explain their defeat. Now they'll focus their efforts on Congress, where a ban on abortions after 20 weeks has passed the GOP-controlled House and has been introduced in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
Nationwide polls show Americans support that kind of ban, though the margins vary from slim to sizable depending on who conducted the survey.
But pro-choice activists said their victory Tuesday shows that when voters are actually asked to vote on a ban, they are skeptical.
In the case of Albuquerque's referendum, opponents were able to raise questions about the legality of the ban and argued it was too restrictive in that it didn't include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
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