As Roe vs. Wade falls, New Mexico braces for a steep rise of abortion seekers

Woman at a clinic.
Dr. Lisa Hofler discusses the procedure for a medication abortion Tuesday with Autumn Brown, whose 3-year-old daughter plays on the floor at the Center for Reproductive Health in Albuquerque, N.M. Brown has five children, ages 2 to 14.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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The parking lot to the abortion clinic in this desert city was crowded recently with cars from out of state: four from Texas. Two from Oklahoma, and others from Arizona, Louisiana and Iowa. Pillows and blankets were scattered across backseats to ease the journey home, which for most would come by day’s end.

In one car, a young man in a Nirvana T-shirt rubbed his palms together and stared off into the sky. In another, a pregnant woman handed an infant to her partner and climbed out into the dry 103-degree heat. She walked past four security cameras, around a wrought-iron fence and through a double-deadbolt door.

They had driven here — others arrive by plane and Greyhound bus — like many before them. New Mexico, one of six states that allow late-term abortions, has for years been overwhelmed by travelers from swaths of the country where the procedure is forbidden. But the Supreme Court’s ruling Friday on a Mississippi law to ban most abortions after 15 weeks, reversing the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, has New Mexico’s abortion providers bracing for a new influx of patients from conservative states.

Medical clinic workers huddle at a counter
Dr. Lisa Hofler, right, clinical vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of New Mexico, huddles with her team at the Center for Reproductive Health on Albuquerque on Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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“Oh, my gosh, the magnitude for us is going to be tremendous,” said Dr. Lisa Hofler, the clinical vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of New Mexico. “This ripples far beyond New Mexico, and they’re going to be coming to us.”

The court’s ruling is drawing this state deeper into a intensifying culture war that has shaped American politics and challenged a woman’s right to abortion for decades. As many states, most controlled by Republican legislatures, have restricted access over the years, New Mexico and others, including Colorado and Illinois, have become safe if at times tense havens for those seeking to end their pregnancies.

New Mexico is something of an anomaly: 49% Hispanic and Latino, largely rural, traditionally Catholic and yet reliably blue, including a friendliness toward LGBTQ communities. The state has no gestational limits or waiting periods for abortions, and it does not require parental consent for minors who want to undergo the procedure. Many New Mexican women who seek abortions travel from their small towns to urban centers, where they will now compete with rising numbers of women from out of state.

More than 5,800 abortions were provided in New Mexico in 2020, the most recent year available, an increase of 32% from 2019. Given the 2021 passage in the adjacent state of Texas of Senate Bill 8, known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, and the Supreme Court ruling, experts estimate the state’s figures for 2021 and 2022 to increase wildly. The influx will challenge the state’s capacity to meet demand.

The Future of Abortion

This is one in a series of occasional stories about the state of abortion as it is challenged in a divided country.

“Drove from Texas with my mom,” read one online review of Southwestern Women’s Options, posted just weeks ago. “They are one of the only clinics in the country that offer this type of help to women.”

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“I came from TX alone,” read a post in May. “I recommend them for any woman needing Help.”

A third was written by a father who said his antiabortion daughter learned at 23 weeks pregnant that her fetus was developing without a brain or functional heart: “I would never wish this upon anyone. But the experience was less tragic here, and we thank them.”

When Texas’ SB 8 took effect last fall, wait times for an abortion at the University of New Mexico Center for Reproductive Health clinic grew from a maximum of 48 hours to two to three weeks. The number of patients more than doubled, and many arrived further along in their pregnancies because they struggled to gather funds for the trip.

Now, doctors expect 13 states with “trigger laws” — and nine more that have policies or laws that effectively ban abortion following the overturn of Roe — to propel a fresh influx of travelers. In total, 26 states are expected to ban abortion. That prospect comes at a time when the U.S. saw an uncharacteristic rise in abortion, increasing from 862,320 in 2017 to 930,160 in 2020, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute.

About 1 in 5 pregnancies in the U.S. in 2020 ended in abortion, and the highest increase — about 12% — occurred in Western states, the institute found.

The logistics of accessing abortion are about to get more complicated, with at least 26 states set to ban the procedure after the fall of Roe vs. Wade.

The University of New Mexico clinic has been asked to join referral networks for OB-GYN doctors across the country whose patients must terminate their pregnancies for medical reasons but cannot legally do so locally. The department also has job openings for more faculty to perform abortions.

“A late-term abortion is a situation that nobody wants to be in,” said Hofler, who noted that most cases involve a severe fetal abnormality or a serious risk to the mother, such as delaying cancer treatment until after pregnancy. “I worry most for the women we won’t see.”

The other day Hofler stepped into waiting room No. 3. Autumn Brown, a mother of five, sat on an exam table wearing black tights, a tank top and high-top sneakers. Her 3-year-old daughter played with a knapsack of toys on the floor. Brown said she couldn’t handle any more children. She was within the 11-week threshold for a medication abortion.

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In a historic reversal, the Supreme Court on Friday overturned the landmark 1973 Roe vs.

Hofler gave Brown instructions: The time of the first dose of medication was noted on the bottle, so Brown would know exactly when to take the second pill. The doctor gave Brown a 24-hour emergency number. The mother collected her daughter and toys and left the clinic.

Although New Mexico is among the least restrictive abortion rights states, there are dangers for providers. In the five decades that Dr. Curtis Boyd has run an abortion clinic, his life has been threatened, and his clinic — Southwestern Women’s Options — has been set on fire. In 2009, his close friend Dr. George Tiller was assassinated for providing late-term abortions in Wichita, Kan.

Boyd, who declined through his clinic staff to be interviewed, was in the spotlight after an ABC affiliate station released a clip in which he said: “Am I killing? Yes. I know that.” In the past, he told a reporter that he chose to begin practicing third-trimester abortions to “carry on this work that George was doing” in protecting women whose lives could be at risk.

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, the executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, coordinates transportation, lodging and food for a growing number of abortion seekers, many of them with low incomes, who struggle to afford their travel to Albuquerque.

If Roe vs. Wade falls, low-income women will suffer most. Texas offers a preview.

The former gym teacher said she felt supported when she sought an abortion in her 20s — she was still on her father’s insurance plan — but said the women she serves through the faith-based organization prove her case was “an exception to the rule.”

Six flights of a narrow staircase in a nondescript building lead to the coalition’s Albuquerque offices, where Lamunyon Sanford was stuffing purple care packages with disposable heating pads, lip balm and uplifting notes from volunteers. A poster above her desk quotes 19th century Rabbi Moses Sofer: “No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.”

When SB 8 passed in Texas, the coalition began booking 20-ticket packages on flights from Dallas every other week, reserving them for women who had learned from an ultrasound that they’d passed “the magic six-week mark,” Lamunyon Sanford said.

On travel days, a chaplain meets the women before dawn at a Dallas church for a blessing, then accompanies them on their flight to Albuquerque, where a caravan of volunteers shuttles them between their abortion appointments and the coalition’s offices, stocked with yoga mats, board games, movies and Doritos.

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“The fact that we have to do this work is a Band-Aid for the problem,” said Lamunyon Sanford, shaking her head as she pushed her graying hair from her face and adjusted the eyeglasses that hung on a chain around her neck.

She believes any woman should be able to access abortion through her local provider, or even through an over-the-counter medication at pharmacies nationwide.

“I’d be very happy if we no longer had to exist,” she said.

In a way, her rivals agree. While abortion advocates consider the coalition a sort of underground railroad for women in crisis, those who oppose the work — such as Tara Shaver, a local antiabortion advocate — say the system affirms Albuquerque’s reputation as the “late-term abortion capital of the world.”

Woman sits in front of the graves of fetal remains at cemetery.
Tara Shaver, an antiabortion advocate, kneels at the graves of fetal remains at a plot called Baby Land in Sandia Memory Gardens cemetery in Albuquerque on Wednesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent afternoon, Shaver pulled her minivan up to a cemetery plot, called Baby Land, for infants and fetal remains she’d helped arrange with a priest. “Naomi Scarlette,” one of the fetal grave plaques read. “June 1, 2017. Your wings were ready, but our hearts were not.”

“The term ‘abortion’ has lost all meaning, and this place brings it back,” Shaver said. “We don’t need to shuttle women into New Mexico. We need to meet these women where they are and provide enough support that they don’t need to choose between their child’s life and their own.”

Shaver organized a schedule with other Christians to ensure that at least one person is praying during every operational hour of local abortion clinics.

The Republican Party, evangelical Christianity and the antiabortion movement have long been inextricably linked. Some Christians want to change that.

But the number of abortions performed in New Mexico is certain to grow. Eight miles south of the cemetery, at a Planned Parenthood across from an auto shop and a cannabis dispensary, an Uber driver dropped off an anxious 22-year-old woman from a local hotel. She’d cried the whole way, the driver said, and kept asking him whether she was doing the right thing.

As they pulled into the fenced lot, a guard in a security booth asked if the vehicle had any knives, guns, Mace or brass knuckles.

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Scribbled on the side of the booth was a sun-bleached reference to the Bible passage John 8:7: Jesus “straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”

Times photographer Gina Ferazzi in Albuquerque contributed to this report.