NM lawmaker, health care advocates aims to increase abortion care accessibility in Legislature

Lack of health care options in rural areas and not enough providers continue to present challenges for reproductive health care

By: - November 14, 2022 5:00 am

N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks before a rally of hundreds supporting abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to upend federal protections for abortion rights on Friday, June 24, 2022 (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

On the same day the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned federal abortion protections, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stood in front of hundreds in Old Town Albuquerque and committed to protecting reproductive rights in New Mexico. 

It set up the tone in her reelection campaign that focused on the issue, including a promise that she would try to get abortion protected by state law.

And after snagging another four years in office, she’ll be working alongside a Legislature that maintained its democratic majority in this year’s General Election, making it likely that legal protections for abortion could fall into place following the 2023 legislative session.

One lawmaker and some health care advocates say the state needs to prioritize legislation that expands access for patients and resources for reproductive services strained by an increase in out-of-state patients. 

New Mexico abortion clinics strained over capacity with out-of-state patients

Rep. Linda Serrato (D-Santa Fe) said she’s creating legislation that would boost abortion access and protection for those giving and getting care. Just because abortion is allowed in the state doesn’t mean everyone can actually get it easily, she said.

“We have an opportunity to make sure that people have access to this type of health care for as long as possible, and so whatever we can do to expand access, increase protections for providers and patients, I think we should do,” Serrato said.

Details aren’t fully set in stone for Serrato’s legislation yet. She’s also working with Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque), who sponsored the bill that repealed the state’s old abortion bans in the 2021 legislative session.

Lujan Grisham believes other lawmakers will also be up for the task of legally protecting abortion. When SourceNM asked Lujan Grisham last month if she plans to work with any legislators specifically to codify abortion, she said she doesn’t have anyone in particular in mind because she thinks so many will be up for the task. “I think we’ll have any number of legislators,” she said.

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Going beyond Roe v. Wade

Kayla Herring, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said accessibility is one of the top issues to getting abortion care in New Mexico. That was true even before Roe v. Wade fell, she said, and the influx of patients coming in from states with bans has only increased wait times in New Mexico.

Herring said Roe was the bare minimum and didn’t offer enough protections for people of color and LGBTQ+ communities, which Serrato echoed.

Codifying abortion protections like Serrato’s wouldn’t be the same as codifying Roe v. Wade, something President Joe Biden said he’d do if Democrats keep control of the U.S. House and get more seats in the Senate — which is still unknown as election results keep rolling in. Instead, Serrato said legislation like this could offer even more protections than what Roe v. Wade did.

“In New Mexico, we’re going beyond what Roe set already, and we’re looking to make sure that when people do get their healthcare treatment, that they can — that they can actually get it — and when they go to their doctors or go to their providers, that they’re able to do so safely,” Serrato said.

Herring said although Roe codification could come later, the priority right now is dropping barriers to reproductive health care access for everyone in the state. She said there are still issues around inequitable access for people of color and those living in rural areas. There also aren’t enough healthcare providers in the state.

“I don’t think that you’ll see a codification of Roe v Wade because here in New Mexico we can have bigger and brighter futures where our families can create their own families in whatever way that will play for them,” she said.

Not enough rural care, not enough health care workers

Many of New Mexico’s reproductive health care centers are only in the state’s most populated cities. There is a lack of options in nearly all of the state’s rural areas.

This gap in coverage needs to be addressed, Serrato said.

She said she knew pregnant people whose doctors would tell them to stay at home for as long as possible before going to the hospital to give birth — something not possible for people in rural areas where there are no medical facilities anywhere near them.

“In many ways, the access that our New Mexicans need to the healthcare they need, it just isn’t there,” Serrato said. “And so ensuring that we are expanding that access, I think, is really critical at this point.”

Herring said Planned Parenthood and a number of other reproductive health care and advocate organizations — Bold Futures, the American Civil Liberties Union, Strong Families New Mexico and Strong Women United — are trying to figure out what rural communities, as well as people of color, need the most, so they can propose legislation supporting patients.

She said Lujan Grisham’s promise to allocate $10 million for a health center in Las Cruces is a step in the right direction. “Bringing access and comprehensive access to care for the southern part of our state will be a huge boost,” she said.

Another issue that stands in the way is the lack of health care workers. Herring said reproductive care, not just abortion care, is lacking all across the state. “New Mexico has been a health care desert for generations,” she said.

Herring said there need to be incentives for providers to come to New Mexico to give “not just reproductive health care, not just abortion care, but the full spectrum of care that our New Mexico communities and families need.”

Lowering the state’s maternal mortality rate

New Mexico’s average maternal mortality rate from 2015 to 2018 was 23.7 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the N.M. Department of Health, nearly matching the national average. And rates for people of color are significantly higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Herring said this is something else doctors could address coming into New Mexico, “understanding what are unique issues in New Mexico for mothers.”

Serrato said some work has already been done to address the worker shortage, like the expansion of the opportunity scholarship. Enrollment in higher education institutions has since increased, and Serrato said this will allow more students to study in fields like nursing.

The lack of workers may also be partially solved on its own, Serrato said, as doctors look to work in places that allow abortion.

For instance, Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaders moved their facility out of Mississippi after the SCOTUS decision and into a space in southern New Mexico. 

Getting things done now

Serrato said these moves to make abortion more accessible and protect providers and patients need to happen in the next two years in the Roundhouse before another election could change the Legislature’s political makeup.

“We want to make sure that people’s rights and access are offered as soon as possible,” she said.

She said she expects normal challenges to come up in the Roundhouse, with impediments like time or committee assignments, but that bills will ultimately get passed.

“I think people have seen what happens in a post-Dobbs world, and the real fear we’re seeing in our neighbors,” she said. “And I think that’s making people understand that when we’re looking at people’s rights to health care, right to access what they need, that kind of supersedes so much more.”

Voters showed up to the polls last week with abortion access in mind and elected reproductive health care champions, Herring said. Now, she said, action can start to get going.

“New Mexicans are ready for increased access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care, including abortion care,” Herring said. “And we’re working on making sure that all New Mexicans can access health care in their own communities.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.