Public debates proposed abortion ordinance; second hearing Friday

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For nearly two hours, Valencia County residents of different walks of life, faiths and political persuasions came before the county commissioners to make their case about a proposed county ordinance that would ban abortion after 20 weeks.

Tears were shed on both sides of the issue, as women shared their deeply personal experiences. The commission room was packed to capacity as nearly three dozen people came to the podium to give their testimony to the board.

In the end, those speaking against the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance, 18 people, slightly outnumbered those who supported the ban, a total of 13.

If approved, the ordinance would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks except in the case of a medical emergency that would jeopardize the life of or cause irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function to the pregnant woman, not including psychological or emotional conditions.

The ordinance makes no exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.

A violation of the ordinance, which only applies to the unincorporated areas of the county, would be punishable by a $300 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

Lisa Justice, of Bosque Farms, stood before the commissioners with her 2-year-old daughter on her hip and her 27-week pregnant abdomen, asking them with tears in her eyes, to approve the ordinance.

"My daughter was born at 27 weeks," Justice said, holding up a picture of her oldest daughter in an incubator. "At 27 weeks, she knew me, she felt me."

During the five months her daughter spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, Justice said she was so fragile she couldn't be held.

"When they could finally put her on my chest, her heart rate would stabilize," she said.

One of the objections raised about the ordinance was the possibility of a lawsuit, which would cost the county money it doesn't have.

Jackie Farnsworth, with the Valencia County Right to Life Chapter and the resident who asked Commissioner Lawrence Romero to sponsor the ordinance, said if a lawsuit happens, her group would raise the money to pay for a defense.

"This is not a law about a woman and her rights, it does not get between a woman and her body, her doctor, her family," Farnsworth said. "This is about what we want our county to be like."

Farnsworth said a 2011 survey of Valencia County residents showed only 18 percent of respondents favored abortion under any circumstances, "right up to birth, which is what we have right now. People would be very offended if you let Valencia County became a magnet for out-of-state women to fly in for abortions. There is no humane way to do late-term abortions."

Farnsworth said abortions after 20 weeks called for the fetus to be removed piece by piece after an injection of dopamine stopped the heart.

"It is a long, lingering death with a 13 percent failure rate and, in that case, it is put in a tray until it dies," she said. "We are not a county that lets us kill puppies, unwanted dogs and cats that way. We don't want a business whose job is horrific, lingering, painful death for babies."

She said a Valencia County ordinance would not keep residents from accessing late-term abortion services.

"They can go to Albuquerque. This matches Albuquerque values," she said.

When Farnsworth initially approached the commission, it was just prior to a vote on a similar 20-week ban in the city of Albuquerque. She proposed the county ordinance as a preemptive strike to the passage of the Albuquerque ordinance and relocation of providers to the south. The Albuquerque ordinance failed.

Four decades ago, Priscilla Ebert had a late-term abortion.

"I regret the pain I caused my child, the irreparable harm I caused my son," Ebert said.

She was not offered counseling either before or after the procedure.

"Looking back at a very naive 18 year old, the enormity of what I was doing didn't come until the doctor inserted the needle into my placenta."

Ebert said her sorrow and remorse were immediate, upon seeing the fetus with all 10 fingers and 10 toes.

"He was never allowed to meet his full potential," she said. "I implore you to refuse to allow any late term practices here. It's a barbarous procedure."

As an operating nurse, Laurie Reed said she has dealt with patients from five pounds to 105 years old, and they were all given anesthesia prior to surgery.

"When we go up to the NICU, because the baby is so small we can't even bring it down, there's the NICU nurse, the practitioner, the pediatric cardiac surgeon and the anesthesiologist. All this skill around one little body … so much attention and skill, so much effort put into one life, I am struck by the irony," Reed said. "Because across town another baby that is equal is being murdered cruelly and barbaricly. Why is this baby important and the other isn't? We are all created equal, with certain inalienable rights. It's the government's job not to give us those rights but to protect them. I am asking you to protect the life of the littlest person."

Many of those who opposed the ordinance said they didn't want someone imposing their religion on them, Larry Chambers said.

"But your religion of death is shoved down my throat," Chambers said.

Many of the people opposed to the ordinance were concerned about the financial strain of a lawsuit against the county. Several people pointed out that New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has issued the opinion that such a ban would be unconstitutional at both the state and federal level.

Stacy Board, a former prosecutor in Socorro County, said her father, as an immigrant, came to this country because he believed passionately in the Constitution and a country that believed in the rule of law.

"A country that does not impose upon people arbitrary and capricious rules based on what some people think is right," Board said. "I am very much against this ordinance. We cannot afford it; the county is bleeding."

The 10 year resident of Valencia County said the Texas Supreme Court did not uphold that states 20-week ban, but instead refused to hear the case on an emergency basis and ruled it would have to work through the normal appeals channel.

"You are looking at something that is probably unconstitutional," she said. "You can spend money on better things, like better access to contraception, parenting classes."

As the mother of two daughters, Board spoke about having to undergo a laparoscopy procedure at 22 weeks.

"I heard the surgeons talking about if they would make any effort to save the fetus if it was in distress during the procedure," she said. "I said, 'You better. You absolutely will make efforts."

During her second pregnancy, Board was told her hormone levels were not high enough to sustain the pregnancy and to have a dilation and curettage.

"Basically an abortion," Board said. "We said no, we wanted to give her an opportunity to fight."

Knowing her child could be severely disabled, and knowing in her heart that there were some things she could handle and some she couldn't, Board and her husband had the agonizing conversation about what to do if the pregnancy had to be ended.

"It is not an easy thing to think about. In some ways, I was lucky; God took that cup from my lips and I didn't have to make that decision," she said, sobbing. "But it was my decision, my husbands, my doctors. It wasn't the government's place to intrude. And I deeply resent the insinuation that a woman would consider this lightly."

Janet Yates said after 20 weeks is usually the only time some "dreadful syndromes" show up in a pregnancy.

"You can't expect a woman to know ahead of time a pregnancy is going to go south. The option needs to be available, sad as it may be," Yates said. "You can say you don't want this in the county, that women can go to Albuquerque. This is not a county-by-county thing. This is an essential service that has to be available to women."

Nobody likes abortion, said Kathleen McCord.

"It is a personal, private, medial decision, and it is a constitutionally-protected right to make a personal, private choice to have a medical procedure," McCord said. "In America, the government has no role in personal, private, medical decisions. Voters have no role in people's personal, private, medical decisions. People have no right to impose their own religious beliefs on any other people.

"I do not see how you can possibly make a decision to violate the basic tenets of women's rights that are protected by the U.S. Constitution."

Lisa Chavez, a mother of two daughters, said politicians should not place themselves in the "most private and personal places that exist."

Chavez pointed out that there are no abortions being provided in the county, calling the whole debate a non-issue.

"I am personally angry this has been brought forth to divide our county and create a culture of hate," Chavez said. "It has been deemed unconstitutional by the AG and we shouldn't be legislating morality. I am Catholic and this is not right for me, but we cannot dictate what others do."

Kimberly Johnston shared the story of the personal decision she made 14 years ago. She had graduated top of her class and begun her freshman year of college when she became pregnant with her daughter.

"My parents are pro-choice and they gave me a choice — either leave the state and go to school on a full scholarship, or stay here and have no help what-so-ever," Johnston said.

She decided to stay, have the baby and raise her daughter as a struggling single mother.

"I made that choice, but it was my choice. I am adamantly against this ban. I went 20 weeks almost to the day, going back and forth to the clinic, trying to decide, living in my car most of that time," she remembered. "I was young and alone. A women in New Mexico is raped every 23 minutes. We, as women, are alone in this. We, as women, have the right to choose. It may not be the same choice for everyone.

"This should be between myself and my doctor. As an elected official, I wouldn't want you to hold my hand when I go make that decision."

Geri Rhodes, a Tomé resident, said she did not feel women made the decision to have an abortion, at any point in a pregnancy, on a whim.

"They don't elect to have an abortion in the same way you do to have cosmetic surgery," Rhodes said. "They are often in crisis and it should be left to a doctor and a woman to make this difficult decision. I stand for her conscious, and I don't think she does it lightly."

None of the four commissioners at the meeting had any questions for those who spoke and offered no comments of their own.

Valencia County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar, the commissioner who cast the tie-breaking vote to move the ordinance forward to a public hearing, was absent from the meeting on Dec. 11.

She and anyone else who missed the first hearing will have a chance to weigh in and hear the arguments at a second public hearing of the ordinance 5 p.m., Friday, Jan. 20.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.