Bill to protect abortion rights and transgender health care in NM takes a step forward

Measure would also bar local governments from restricting access to care

By: - February 6, 2023 4:30 am

An abortion rights supporter holds up a sign along with the trans and nonbinary pride flags in front of the federal courthouse in Downtown Albuquerque on the evening of Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

The first piece of legislation protecting abortion rights to begin making its way through the session was approved by lawmakers Friday after an hourslong debate. 

If passed into law, the Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Freedom Act would make it illegal for public entities to discriminate against people seeking such care, or to interfere with their access.

And local governments couldn’t pass their own bans on abortion or gender-affirming care. The cities of Hobbs and Clovis in New Mexico passed ordinances to restrict abortion last year.

Sponsor Linda Serrato (D-Santa Fe) said politicians — specifically Republicans in more rural, conservative areas — shouldn’t be able to limit people’s ability to get abortions or discriminate against people seeking reproductive health care.

“What is extremely important is that we are not creating a checkerboard of where people can access health care and where they can’t,” she said.

The bill would also apply to all New Mexico agencies and branches of state government, along with school districts and universities.

Ellie Rushforth is an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. She responded to public concerns that this bill would force people to do things they don’t feel morally comfortable with.

“What this bill does not do is create an affirmative duty for anyone to provide health care that they do not already provide or that they do not feel comfortable providing,” she said. “It does not change medical care standards, clinical guidelines, anything of that nature.”

The measure was approved by the House Health and Human Services Committee on a 7-3 vote, split along party lines.  

In the strongly Democrat Roundhouse, it’s likely the measure will eventually make its way to the governor’s desk for signature. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made the codification of abortion rights in state law one of her top priorities.

N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a rally for reproductive rights at Tiguex Park in Albuquerque following the Supreme Court ruling that ended nearly 50 years of national protections for abortion rights under the U.S. Constitution on Friday, June 24, 2022.
N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a rally for reproductive rights at Tiguex Park in Albuquerque following the Supreme Court ruling that ended nearly 50 years of national protections for abortion rights under the U.S. Constitution on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

Gender-affirming care

As with abortion restrictions rolling out around the U.S., state-level governments are also attempting bans on gender-affirming care.

Born and raised in Texas, college student Lama Quiroz moved to New Mexico last year to live in a place that would protect her and allow her to get the health care she needs as a transgender woman. 

“As a trans person, as a suicide survivor, as someone who’s experienced the worst-case scenario, I urge you to support this bill,” Quiroz told to the lawmakers during the hearing.

Serrato said gender-related health care treatments save lives. In a 2015 survey of nearly 28,000 transgender people, 40% of them had attempted suicide compared with the general rate of 4.6% in the nation, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“I think it’s important that as we look at protecting everyone, even in these counties where some of these things are being discussed, it is important that they feel and know that they can access health care in New Mexico completely within their rights so they can thrive in their lives,” she said.

Dr. Molly McClain is a physician at the University of New Mexico Hospital and spoke as an expert on the measure. She said this bill sends an important message to gender-expansive people that their access to medical care, and their lives in general, are valued and protected.

“I hear every day about how much resiliency is required simply to exist as a gender-expansive person today in our world,” McClain said. “And it’s purely social and economic exclusion that leads to the poor and avoidable health outcomes that gender-expansive people experience.”

The debate

Opponents lined up to speak against the bill, both at the Roundhouse and online. Ethel Maharg, director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, said the bill combines separate points about abortion access and transgender rights.

Nurse practitioner and midwife Jennifer Robinson, among the many public supporters, countered that it’s about health care access for all people.

I find that the common thread in this bill is that we as New Mexicans trust people to make decisions about their bodies, whether it be related to their reproductive autonomy or their gender identity.

– Jennifer Robinson, midwife and nurse practitioner

The committee’s three Republican representatives —  Stefani Lord (Sandia Park), Jenifer Jones (Deming) and Harlan Vincent (Ruidoso Downs) — were the only lawmakers to participate in any discussion. They went back and forth on how the language was worded and proposed many hypothetical scenarios, though Serrato said the lack of details in the theoretical made it difficult to determine exactly how each situation would play out under the bill.

Many of the measure’s opponents in the public comment didn’t fully understand the scope and limitations of the bill, and Lord said people don’t get it because of the way it was written. “This is super, super vague,” she said.

Jones agreed. “I have some very serious concerns about your bill,” she said. “It seems that it’s overly broad.”

Lord questioned where in the bill there are exemptions for providers who wouldn’t want to perform services like abortion. Rushforth said whatever already exists in statute, like religious exemptions, isn’t spelled out in this legislation because the measure wouldn’t override those laws.

With time running out for the discussion, chair Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque) said hammering out all of the legal details will really be up to the House Judiciary Committee, where the measure heads next.

Fear of losing health care providers, teachers

Under the bill, the state’s attorney general or district attorneys could file suit against those who break the law by creating barriers or discriminating against anyone seeking reproductive or gender-affirming medical care. Violations could also result in civil cases with monetary awards.

Lord said she’s worried this could invite lawsuits against teachers and providers, causing them to leave the state amid severe worker shortages in both fields.

“It is problematic for me because I’m worried about doctors. I want to protect our doctors,” Lord said. “I want to protect our teachers so they don’t get involved with this.”

Even in a broader sense, she said, she doesn’t want anyone working in the public sector to get pulled into legal battles over this “badly worded” bill and pay tens of thousands of dollars in penalty and attorney fees.

“I understand equality, totally understand equality, but what I don’t understand is the penalty,” she said.

But McClain, a provider herself, said the focus really needs to be on gender-expansive youth.

“While I appreciate people being concerned about doctors like me staying in the state, and teachers,” she said, “I think we also have to remember how important it is to protect vulnerable children. And gender-expansive children are among the most vulnerable in the world, not just in our country.”

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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.