‘This is a long game’: After Roe, the fight over abortion access moves to New Mexico
Aug 25, 2023, 7:00 PM
(Noel Lyn Smith/News21 via AP)
CLOVIS, N.M. (AP) — The sanctuary in Grace Covenant Reformed Church was packed.
People stood shoulder to shoulder wherever they could — near the stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible, behind the neatly lined rows of chairs that serve as pews, against a wall covered in crosses made from painted wood, wire, glass and ceramic red chiles.
Bibles and hymnals rested under every seat, but they weren’t used that Monday night last September. There was no sermon, because this wasn’t a church service.
Residents of Clovis, a town of some 40,000 people a mere 20-minute drive to the Texas state line, crammed into this little brick building that night to discuss a plan of action to ban abortion.
Just three months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that had legalized abortion in the U.S. for almost 50 years.
As trigger laws banning the procedure began going into effect across the nation — in places including neighboring Texas — abortion providers took up residence in New Mexico, which has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the U.S.
“As the laws in this country change before our very eyes,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on the day Roe was reversed, “I will continue to fight for the right to a safe, legal abortion in New Mexico and stand as a brick wall against those who seek to punish women and their doctors just because they seek the care they need and deserve.”
In the year since Dobbs, New Mexico has been a brick wall and a safe haven — for those who provide abortions and those who desire or need them.
But it’s also become something else: a new battleground in the fight over access to abortion in this country, with smaller towns and bigger cities — and American versus American — warring against one another.
“We gained a lot of ground with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but now it’s at the state level,” said Logan Brown, a science teacher from Portales, New Mexico, who helped organize the September church gathering. He’s a self-proclaimed abortion abolitionist, intent on outlawing abortion at all stages, for any reason.
“Now,” Brown said, “instead of one battlefield, it’s 50 battlefields.”
This report is part of “ America After Roe,” an examination of the impact of the reversal of Roe v. Wade on health care, culture, policy and people, produced by Carnegie-Knight News21. For more stories, visit https://americaafterroe.news21.com/.
‘This is about your freedom’
The Rev. Erika Ferguson doesn’t scare easily.
After spending 30 years working in reproductive justice, she isn’t afraid of protesters outside of abortion clinics. The Dallas pastor and fierce advocate for abortion rights has become accustomed to the deafening screams from opposing voices and learned to block it all out.
Ferguson doesn’t fear the red and blue police lights and sirens that could await her arrival on the tarmac each time she returns to Texas from a trip to New Mexico. Or the police with their handcuffs ready to be wrapped around her wrists. Ridicule, opposition and the possibility of arrest — or worse — are all risks Ferguson regularly dances with.
“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid at all,” she said in an interview with News21. “There’s no great movement without risk and sacrifice.”
Ferguson has helped over 250 women receive legal abortions in New Mexico through a network that transports mostly women of color from abortion-restricted Texas every week.
Her work started in 2021 after Texas passed Senate Bill 8, which banned abortion at around six weeks — before many know they are pregnant.
“My prime directive as a person of faith is to care for those that need care, is to accompany those that have no one to support them,” she said. “What else is a minister supposed to be doing except offering care, support and comfort to whoever for whatever?”
The women she works with aren’t the only ones seeking care in New Mexico.
From July 2022 through April 2023, New Mexico’s five Planned Parenthood clinics recorded 2,749 appointments — a 97% increase from the 10-month period before the Texas ban was in place.
Post-Roe, 57% of Planned Parenthood patients in New Mexico are from Texas, according to the agency, with others coming from Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere.
“This was not by accident,” Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains said in an emailed statement. “Home-grown reproductive justice groups have been organizing on the ground for decades to ensure New Mexico maintains the right to self-determination.”
Despite those efforts, the sudden and massive increase in abortion-seekers was not something New Mexico was necessarily prepared for, said Dr. Eve Espey, chair of the OB-GYN department at the University of New Mexico.
When the need for abortion care first began increasing, clinics adjusted scheduling and staffing, expanded telehealth capabilities, and extended hours, Espey said. This was helpful in accommodating not only clinical care but mental health concerns and logistical issues like helping patients with transportation, child care and funding.
“I think we can handle the numbers that are coming in, but we know that we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Espey said. “We know that we’re only seeing the patients who have the means or who have the health literacy, who have connections, internet skills and all of the things that are required to come sometimes 14 hours.”
Soon after the passage of SB 8, Ferguson took her first trip to New Mexico with 25 women. She got her inspiration from a late-night text message she received from a 16 year old.
“How am I going to get out of the state to get an abortion? I can’t even figure out how to get a bus across town,” the teen wrote.
Ferguson replied with five words: “Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”
“I really didn’t know what I was saying, but I knew that I was going to help her, just like people helped me,” said Ferguson, who had two abortions when she was 16 and 18 and remembers being treated with dignity and respect.
She has continued her work, only stopping briefly after the overturn of Roe to ensure the safety of her patients and herself. She declined to allow News21 to accompany the group on a trip to New Mexico and keeps the identities of those she assists private.
SB 8 allows private citizens to bring civil actions against those who help people get abortions in Texas, but advocates who provide funding or assistance to send people out of state have feared the law could be used against them, too.
For that reason, Ferguson takes extra precautions. In New Mexico, before each group of patients boards the return flight home, she says her goodbyes and warns them to do nothing if they see law enforcement or signs of trouble back in Texas.
“‘No matter what you see, I want you to keep walking,’” she tells them, ‘“because this is about your freedom.’”
Once they exit the plane, Ferguson never sees the women again. But they leave with lifelong community, dignity and hope, she said.
“This is a story of affirmation, of possibility. This is a story that has a happy ending.”
It’s not just people streaming into New Mexico. Abortion clinics unable to operate in restrictive states have sought refuge in the Land of Enchantment.
The Mississippi clinic at the center of Dobbs v. Jackson relocated to Las Cruces, in the southern part of the state. It’s now called Pink House West. And Whole Woman’s Health, which had multiple locations in Texas, has moved to Albuquerque.
But as the state became a sanctuary for the abortion rights movement, those on the other side watched with worry and downright disgust. Then they took action.
“What has happened in New Mexico is that they’ve set up these laws and have given carte blanche for all of these profiteering abortion businesses to come to New Mexico, if they’re not already here,” said Elisa Martinez, founder of New Mexico Alliance for Life.
“In these outlying rural communities of New Mexico … these are not our values,” she said. “There’s a huge disconnect between the policies that are being shoved down our throats by these politicians and what people actually believe.”
A fight over ‘sanctuary’
Clovis is known for three things: farming, ranching and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s home to the Norman Petty Studios, where Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison once recorded. The area’s fertile land produces grain and other crops, from potatoes to pumpkins.
There is no abortion provider in the community. Some residents say there’s never been. And the town is located hundreds of miles from the nearest provider in the state.
When the state became one of the top destinations for abortion care post-Roe, some decided to take a stand.
“We didn’t like it by any means,” said Brown, the science teacher from Portales, 20 miles southwest of Clovis. “We still don’t.”
New Mexico is typically described as a blue state and, at all levels of government right now, it is. Since 2019, Democrats have held the governor’s office and led the state House and Senate. The state attorney general and secretary of state are Democrats, too.
The population centers of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces are dominated by Democratic voters. But head east, to towns like Clovis, Hobbs, Roswell and others, and the ideological balance shifts.
“It’s much more Republican,” said Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico political science professor. “You’ve got cattle ranchers, you’ve got farming, you’ve got oil and gas, and then you’ve got proximity to Texas, which I think influences things.”
The state also has a libertarian streak, with many who lean conservative on fiscal matters but liberal on social policies. And more than half of its residents are Hispanic — many practicing Catholics — further complicating the political landscape.
“We’re definitely a pro-choice state and will probably stay that way,” Krebs said. “But it’s not as straightforward as it might be in a place like California or New York or Illinois that are more ideologically liberal.”
Even before Roe was reversed, New Mexico had some of the most lax laws on abortion in the nation, allowing the procedure throughout the full gestation period.
After Roe, as abortion providers and patients flowed into the state, Brown and a friend, Erick Welsh of Clovis, reached out to anti-abortion advocate Mark Lee Dickson.
Dickson, a pastor from Longview, Texas, and director of Right to Life of East Texas, oversees the “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” initiative, begun in 2019. Dickson travels the country to help communities pass local ordinances to ban abortion.
“I want to see abortion outlawed on every square inch of this planet,” he said. “And if we ever have colonies on Mars, then there, too.”
Dickson, with help from Texas lawyer Jonathan Mitchell, the strategist behind SB 8 and other anti-abortion legal maneuvers, crafts each ordinance to be unique to each town. In New Mexico, the measures aim to ban abortion by prohibiting the mailing of abortion-inducing pills like mifepristone and instruments used in surgical abortions.
Dickson contends such bans are legal, even in states where abortion has not been outlawed, because of the Comstock Act, a law passed in the 1870s that made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials related to abortion or birth control.
The federal statute was considered dormant during the reign of Roe, but Dickson and others believe it’s now back in play. The U.S. Department of Justice disagrees. Comstock is also at the heart of a court case seeking to ban mifepristone nationally.
A recent “Sanctuary Cities” event in Prescott Valley, Arizona, drew about 40 people. “We’ve been wanting to come to Arizona for quite some time,” Dickson called out to the crowd.
In Clovis, Brown and Welsh worried abortion providers would set up shop, given the proximity to Texas. After connecting with Dickson, they convened the September interest meeting at Grace Covenant church, and things took off from there.
Welsh, 40, has lived in Clovis since he was 5 years old. He found his faith in the middle of a rehabilitation center during a struggle with substance abuse in late 2017. Before that, he was spiraling and on the brink of losing all he had — his wife, kids, job and even his life.
He began his adult life with few opinions on abortion, none against it. Now, he dedicates himself to God and, with that, fighting against abortion.
“It is either for babies or against babies. That’s it,” he said. “There is no justifiable reason why anyone should be taking the life of a person, whether it is after they’re born or before they’re born. It’s that simple.”
After holding several more events to rally community members, Brown, Welsh and other proponents succeeded in getting the ordinance on the agenda of the Clovis City Commission. It was debated at four different meetings – each so full many were not allowed into the chamber – before passing on Jan. 5.
But not all in Clovis united behind the effort.
After Roe was reversed, Clovis residents Laura Wight and Sarah Hartzell met at a protest, then together started the group Eastern New Mexico Rising to advocate for abortion and other progressive ideals in this conservative region.
“We came up with the name, we created a Facebook group, we started sharing information and just trying to connect with people …and it just exploded from there,” said Wight, who works as a library and museum director.
She said the group now stands at about 300 members, including educators, mothers, nurses and military wives living on Cannon Air Force Base just west of Clovis.
When word spread of Brown and Welsh’s efforts, Eastern New Mexico Rising jumped into action. Wight, Hartzell and other group members began speaking at commission meetings.
When they lost that battle, they tried to put the ordinance to a public vote but failed to gather enough signatures.
“We’re still working to get voices heard, but there are folks in the more populated areas who are very quick to sort of paint the brush for the whole state when we’re over here and we still need help,” Wight said. “We’re still fighting.”
As Clovis debated, other New Mexico counties and towns passed anti-abortion ordinances: Roosevelt County, which includes Portales; Eunice, a small town south of Clovis; Edgewood, located just east of Albuquerque; Lea County, which abuts Texas to the east and south; and Hobbs, a city just 6 miles from the Texas line.
“I may not be able to change the culture in our state, but I’m confident we could change the culture in our city,” said Lori Bova, a founding member of the Lea County chapter of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico and a key advocate of the ordinance in Hobbs.
A mother’s fight
Faith and family. For Bova, those two words shape her core values and mold how she’s approached her activism for the last 25 years.
Bova has dedicated her life to the anti-abortion sphere, a purpose she discovered as a senior in high school after she learned she was pregnant.
“The world will tell you that’s the end of your life. You can’t be successful. You can’t go on. Well, it’s just not the truth,” she said. “It actually was probably the beginning of my life, because it gave me a much more keen awareness of the value of life.”
She decided to put her baby up for adoption. Bova then went to college, had a career in corporate America and settled down with her husband, Craig, to start her family.
While adoption helped inspire Bova’s interest in anti-abortion activism, another loss cemented her focus. In 1999, Bova and her husband were expecting their first child. The baby, Maddison Grace, had grown in Bova’s womb for 41 weeks.
“I was overdue – huge – and in the summer I went in for a stress test just to make sure everything was OK.”
Bova was induced and, during labor, the placenta detached prematurely, leaving Maddison without her lifeline. The baby died.
“They were able to bring her into the room, and we were able to hold her,” Bova said. “In that moment, I knew she had a purpose, and I think part of that purpose was for her mother to fight for every little baby like her.”
Bova moved from Arkansas to New Mexico 12 years ago to start a Christian academy for children. When she learned about New Mexico’s abortion laws, she began advocating at the state level and contacting her legislators.
“But I realized there was almost too much ground that needed to be gained.”
Then Bova learned of Mark Lee Dickson and his ordinances. “It turned out to be a great path,” she said.
The night Hobbs commissioners voted for the ordinance, Bova found herself sitting next to a state legislator, who told her the right way to address the issue was in the Legislature, not in individual communities.
“I said, ‘Well, Santa Fe has had 50 years since Roe v. Wade was passed to do something to protect women, and they’ve done nothing. And so if we can do something to even protect women and preborn babies in our little corner, then I think we should do it,’” Bova said.
“I think the Lord worked in a very creative way to bring us something.”
‘State law is state law’
The city ordinances may be creative but, experts note, they are not enforceable.
“State law is state law,” said Krebs, the political scientist. “Local governments are creatures of state governments, so they can’t really have their own policies in this area.”
The ordinances, he added, are “just symbolic.”
In March, the New Mexico Legislature took steps to further cement abortion rights. Lawmakers passed House Bill 7 to protect abortion and gender-affirming health care and allow civil penalties for violations. The measure also prohibits public entities from approving or enforcing ordinances or policies that conflict with state law.
“Everyone deserves access to essential health care no matter what corner of our state they call home,” state Rep. Reena Szczepanski, a Democrat, said when the bill was signed into law.
Other new laws prohibit entities in New Mexico from sharing patient information related to abortion care to aid outside civil or criminal investigations or disciplinary proceedings and allocate $10 million toward a reproductive health clinic in Doña Ana County, which includes Las Cruces.
While all of that was happening, Bova joined Mark Lee Dickson in Washington, D.C. In front of the U.S. Supreme Court, they, along with Eunice city officials, announced a lawsuit against Gov. Lujan Grisham and the state attorney general over efforts to invalidate the local ordinances.
That case is on hold while the state Supreme Court considers a separate challenge involving the ordinances.
The new laws were big wins for abortion rights advocates like Laura Wight and Sarah Hartzell, but those on the other side aren’t worried. Their fight will continue, said Welsh, the anti-abortion advocate from Clovis.
“This is a long game, it’s not a short game,” he said. “And our hope is not in the state and it’s not in the Supreme Court. It’s in God alone.”
One year later
On June 24, the morning of the first anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson, the sun rose on an old dentist’s office in Las Cruces that has been converted into a destination for women seeking abortion care.
The parking lot of Pink House West, formerly Jackson Women’s Health Clinic in Mississippi, held one car – an employee’s with a New Mexico license plate – when the clinic opened.
The sounds of morning doves and faint chatter from nearby apartments filled the air.
This quiet is new.
Last year, after Pink House West announced the move to Las Cruces, anti-abortion protesters amassed in this spot. They listened as officials with the Texas-based Southwest Coalition for Life announced it would open a so-called “crisis pregnancy center” next door.
Separated by a drainage ditch, a handful of abortion rights activists waved signs and chanted as the anti-abortion crowd drowned them out with calls of, “With God, all things are possible.”
The sun set that night as the two groups warred over the future of abortion in New Mexico.
The fight may be gone now from the doorstep of Pink House West, but the battle rages on – in New Mexico and all across the land.
News21 reporters Kevin Palomino, Jada Respress, Elise Gregg, April Michelle Pierdant, and Joseph Kual Zakaria contributed to this story. This report is part of “ America After Roe,” an examination of the impact of the reversal of Roe v. Wade on health care, culture, policy and people, produced by Carnegie-Knight News21. For more stories, visit https://americaafterroe.news21.com/.