Should Cities Be Able to Set Their Own Abortion Restrictions?

Voters in Albuquerque will decide today whether to ban late-term abortions, the first such municipal referendum in the country.

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AP

Southwestern Women's Options in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of the few clinics in the United States that provides late-term abortions. As they have in other states, opponents tried to ban abortions beyond the 20th week of pregnancy in New Mexico, with an eye toward shuttering the clinic.

The campaign never took hold in the state legislature. So advocates for abortion restrictions are now trying an entirely novel tactic: a city ordinance that would do what New Mexico would not.

Today, voters in Albuquerque will decide on the referendum in a special election that has already drawn more early voters than last month's mayoral contest. The proposal on the ballot would ban abortions within the city after 20 weeks even in cases of rape or when a woman's life is in danger. If the referendum passes, Albuquerque would be the only city in the country to ban late-term abortions.

The referendum has received national attention for both the bruising public campaign leading up to the vote and the precedent it could set. National advocacy groups on both sides of the issue believe this is the first such municipal abortion referendum in the country. And it could open up a new, local front in a policy battle more often fought at the federal and state levels.

Because there has been no local polling on the topic, it's unclear how the city will vote. Back in August, the referendum's supporters submitted 27,000 signatures – more than double what was needed – to put the question on the ballot.

The bill's authors, a pair of activists trained by the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, moved to Albuquerque three years ago to work as "missionaries" in what they've been calling "the late-term abortion capital of the United States" (Operation Rescue previously gave Wichita, Kansas, this exact same designation). The clinic's supporters, meanwhile, have decried the agitation of "out-of-state interests" in turning the city into the new heated national epicenter in the abortion debate.

New Mexico's attorney general has already said he believes the ordinance to be unconstitutional. So if it passes, it's likely to be challenged in court. By then, however, a tactical precedent (if not a legal one) will already be set, potentially opening numerous new local points of attack for opponents who've long sought creative ways to undermine Roe v. Wade.

Top image of abortion-rights protesters in Albuquerque this month: Juan Antonio Labreche/AP

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.