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.
That has changed in the past couple of weeks as big national players became invested.
The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that has helped push 20-week bans in various states, has poured tens of thousands of dollars in advertising money into the initiative. President Obama’s political arm has become involved on the other side, using the vote to try to raise money.
“The groups behind the ballot initiative are extremely well-funded and — if they win in Albuquerque — you can bet they’re going to take this approach to cities and states across the country,” wrote Kaili Lambe, women’s issues campaign manager for Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that emerged from Mr. Obama’s campaign team.
New Mexico always has been liberal when it comes to abortion laws. It doesn’t restrict abortions late in the term, nor does it have parental consent, notification provisions, a waiting period, or any of the clinic safety restrictions that other states have imposed in recent years.
Mrs. Shaver said it’s called the Wild West of abortion, and she said that’s why Dr. Curtis has set up in New Mexico — and why he draws from so many other states.
Asked why New Mexico was different, Micaela Cadena, policy director for Young Women United in Albuquerque, said she views New Mexico as the constant and said it’s other states that have changed by adding abortion restrictions.
“It’s something about everywhere else in that those with an agenda have been able to restrict a woman’s access to health care decisions,” she said.
Both sides said it’s unclear how voter turnout will go and whether either side has an advantage in a special election like this one — particularly with no other big race on the ballot.
Early-voting turnout was running high.
“You look at our history and there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing outside of a presidential election that has this much interest,” said Julianna Koob of Planned Parenthood New Mexico. “This path that we’re going down is dangerous on a number of fronts and could happen anywhere in the country.”
Initial polling appeared to show the pro-life side winning, according to an Albuquerque Journal survey in September.
But a poll taken late last week sponsored by a blog, New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan, showed opponents of the referendum winning 53 percent to 41 percent.
“The tide is not benefiting the pro-life movement as we near Election Day,” pollster Bruce Donisthorpe told the blog, adding that pro-choice voters probably have won the early voting and pro-life folks will have to make up ground Tuesday. “Those in favor of the ban are going to have to go outside the pool of regular, likely voters, to win this race and they don’t have a lot of time.”
It’s unclear exactly how many doctors in Albuquerque would be affected by the ban.
Mrs. Shaver said she believed that in addition to Southwestern Women’s Options, the University of New Mexico Center for Reproductive Health, which advertises abortions up to 22 weeks, would have to change its practice.
But that depends on how pregnancies are measured.
The Albuquerque initiative sets the ban at 20 weeks from conception, but pregnancies often are measured by gestational age, or the first day of a woman’s last period, which is usually about two weeks before conception. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, most states that have enacted bans measure from fertilization but several do measure gestational age.
The women’s groups in Albuquerque say they have made headway with voters by questioning the way the referendum is written: It doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest, and they said questions about the 20-week timeline also have troubled some voters.
The UNM Center didn’t return a message seeking comment about whether it would be affected.
Southwestern Women’s Options — the chief target of the referendum — referred calls to the state American Civil Liberties Union.
Twenty-week abortion bans enacted by state legislatures are being tested in courts, where the results have been mixed. A version of the ban passed the U.S. House this year and has been introduced in the Senate, but there is little chance the Democrat-led chamber will bring it to the floor.
The science also is contested. A growing amount of literature says fetuses may feel pain at 20 weeks, and pro-life advocates say that’s enough reason to extend protections to that level.
Pro-choice advocates say most science points to later in the pregnancy before a fetus could feel pain, and doctors say even if they can feel pain, there are ways to mitigate it during an abortion — including with anesthesia.
Pro-choice advocates also say women seeking abortions that late in pregnancy are usually the ones in crisis — they have discovered a severe abnormality or have some other complication that has pushed them to what all sides acknowledge is a wrenching decision.
“This is the last place the government should be,” Ms. Koob said.