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INSIGHT-New frontline of U.S. abortion battles emerges in New Mexico

By Brad Brooks

CLOVIS, New Mexico, Oct 26 (Reuters) - The new frontline of the U.S. abortion battle is on the remote plains of New Mexico, where two conservative towns are set to outlaw the medical procedure despite it remaining legal in the state after Roe v. Wade was struck down.

The towns of Clovis and Hobbs do not even have abortion clinics but are strategic, activists and clinicians say, because they are near the border with Texas, to the east. Texas was one of the first states to impose a near-total ban on abortion and providers could face up to life in prison there.

The New Mexican abortion provider within closest reach for most Texas women is currently in Albuquerque - about a four-hour drive from Clovis and five hours from Hobbs.

Reuters attended recent city commission meetings in both Clovis and Hobbs where the anti-abortion ordinances were advanced and has learned from one of the largest independent abortion providers in the United States that the legal moves have caused it to reconsider setting up a clinic in eastern New Mexico.

Anti-abortion activists hope other towns will follow Clovis and Hobbs to vastly shrink where abortions are still performed, especially in other states controlled by Democrats. Activists in New Mexico fighting for women's access to safe abortions fear a new fight is coming to these "blue" states.

Clovis and Hobbs are likely to face legal challenges, but similar measures have survived lawsuits in Texas. Voters in Lubbock, Texas, which is near the New Mexico border, outlawed abortion in 2021. Planned Parenthood was unsuccessful in its challenge of the Lubbock ordinance, and its clinic in the Texas town stopped providing abortions even before Roe fell.

"Anti-abortion forces, now that they don't need to pay attention to Texas and Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana anymore, they're starting to focus on what I call the 'new frontier'," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman's Health, one of the nation's largest independent providers of abortion.

CITY BY CITY

The town-level strategy is the brainchild of a Christian pastor and a conservative lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a critic of Roe.

Mark Lee Dickson, a pastor and head of the Right to Life of East Texas, founded the "sanctuary cities for the unborn" movement in 2019. In New Mexico, Dickson worked with conservative lawyer Jonathan Mitchell, who was the architect of Texas' 2021 "heartbeat" abortion law.

The influx of abortion-seeking women from Texas and word that a clinic could open in their towns is what drove pastors in Clovis and Hobbs to reach out to Dickson.

"We know that abortion providers want to set up right here in these cities that are just minutes away from the Texas border," Dickson said after the Oct. 17 city commission meeting in Hobbs advanced the ordinance there. "They want to attract as many Texas residents as possible for abortions right here in New Mexico."

Both Clovis and Hobbs are located in a far more conservative chunk of the state than the more liberal areas around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Residents here bristle that their state is controlled by politicians who do not share their views on many issues, including environmental policies impacting the area's massive petroleum industry, pandemic restrictions and abortion.

"We hope this sends the message to our state legislature that there are pro-life cities out there and we want to self-determine on this issue," Clovis Mayor Mike Morris said on Oct. 13 when his town advanced the proposed ban.

But Laura Wight, a 45-year-old Clovis citizen who helped found Eastern New Mexico Rising, a local progressive group opposed to the proposed abortion ordinance, said the measure was an attack on the rights of local women and those in Texas who may seek safe abortions in eastern New Mexico.

Wight said she has reached out to the ACLU and that her group will attend the Nov. 3 Clovis city commission meeting where a final vote is expected on the ordinance. She hopes the measure will not pass but says it likely will.

"Many states are in danger of facing similar situations," Wight said. "That's the crux of it. That's why the overturning of Roe v. Wade and leaving that decision up to the states is such a big deal. Because when it's left up to the states, you're at the mercy of whoever is in charge of the state at that particular time, or in this case, the local government."

The prospect of thousands of Texas women seeking abortion coming to New Mexico in part led New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to earmark $10 million for a reproductive healthcare clinic in the area of Las Cruces, located 210 miles (340 km) west of Hobbs.

New Mexico's Attorney General Hector Balderas told Reuters that he was concerned at developments in Clovis and Hobbs and had directed staff to "evaluate this recent activity, due to the city's legal obligation to protect access to healthcare for women and families."

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and its federal abortion protections in June, Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman's Health, was forced to shut down the group's abortion clinics in Texas.

Hagstrom Miller said she will open clinics in New Mexico and is considering opening a facility in Clovis or Hobbs, in large part to serve women arriving from Texas. But the possibility of "sanctuary" ordinances has given her pause about operating in eastern New Mexico.

"In this post-Dobbs era, where anti-abortion folks are emboldened, I want to be sure we're in a place where our patients can be safe, where our doctors and our staff can be safe," she said.

OLD LAW, NEW USE

The ordinances both Clovis and Hobbs are set to pass rest upon federal law from the 1940s that forbids using the U.S. Postal Service or a private carrier such as FedEx to mail or deliver anything "designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion." The cities would demand that abortion clinics adhere to that federal law to obtain a city permit to operate.

"We don't think any abortion facility will agree to do that. If a clinic agreed to follow that federal law, we don't believe they would be able to carry out abortions, for lack of materials," said Dickson, the anti-abortion activist from Texas.

Michael Seibel, an Albuquerque-based anti-abortion lawyer who consulted with Dickson and Mitchell on the Clovis and Hobbs proposed ordinances, said he hopes the model will be followed in Democratic-controlled states across the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in June overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women's constitutional right to abortion. That gave states the power to ban abortion. Seibel proposes going beyond state-by-state to locality-by-locality.

"New Mexico and many other blue states are actually pro-life states that are just dominated by one or two big cities," Seibel said, speaking in Hobbs after the city commission gave its preliminary approval to the "sanctuary" ordinance on Oct. 17. "The vast majority of towns and villages throughout a blue state may in fact be pro-life."

A final vote in Hobbs is set Nov. 7.

Polling carried out by the Pew Research Center has shown in the past that while a majority believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases, 45% of adults in New Mexico believe that abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases."

Ellie Rushforth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Albuquerque, said the proposed ordinances violate the state constitution. She sent a letter to Clovis city commission members saying passing the ordinance would "expose the city and its citizens to potentially significant liability."

Rushforth said the ACLU stood ready to defend women's right to reproductive care.

"They're using our communities as testing grounds for dubious legal theories," she said.

Read more:

U.S. abortion clinic moves up the street to escape one state's ban

EXPLAINER-How abortion became a divisive issue in U.S. politics

How Texas' abortion ban hurts Big Oil's effort to transform its workforce

WIDER IMAGE-With U.S. abortion access in jeopardy, this doctor travels to fill a void

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Clovis and Hobbs, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker)