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New Mexico top court appears set to block local ordinances that limit abortion pill

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New Mexico top court appears set to block local ordinances that limit abortion pill
Reuters
Brendan Pierson
December 13, 2023

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) - The New Mexico Supreme Court, based on arguments it heard on Wednesday, appeared poised to block several local ordinances in the state that aim to restrict distribution of the abortion pill.

However, the high court appeared unlikely to rule that the state's constitution includes a right to abortion, as the state's Attorney General Raul Torrez, a Democrat, had urged, leaning instead toward deciding the case on narrower legal grounds.

The arguments before the New Mexico Supreme Court came on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court took up the Biden administration's appeal of a U.S. appeals court decision that would curb how the pill, called mifepristone, is delivered and distributed, barring telemedicine prescriptions and shipments of the drug by mail.

Mifepristone is taken with another drug called misoprostol to perform medication abortion, which accounts for more than half of all U.S. abortions.

Abortion is legal in New Mexico, which has become a destination for women seeking abortions from nearby states, like Texas, that have banned it following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year ending its recognition of a constitutional right to abortion.

Following that ruling, New Mexico's Roosevelt and Lea Counties and the towns of Clovis and Hobbs, all on the Texas border, passed ordinances seeking to stop abortion clinics from receiving or sending mifepristone or other abortion-related materials in the mail.

The ordinances invoked the federal Comstock Act, a 19th century law against mailing abortifacients, and said that clinics must comply with the law.

Torrez filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court seeking to block the ordinances, saying the state's constitution included a right to abortion. In March, the state passed a law explicitly blocking local governments from interfering with access to abortion care.

The high court's five justices, all elected as Democrats or appointed by a Democratic governor, on Wednesday signaled that the state law was enough to decide the case.

"(The ordinance) is designed to prevent any provider or clinic from offering reproductive healthcare unless your client says it is consistent with what we view to be a moral doctrine," Chief Justice Shannon Bacon told Valerie Chacon, a lawyer for the town of Hobbs. "It by definition is interference."

Chacon had argued that the ordinance was part of the county's "inherent right to create ordinances that regulate business," and was not directly related to abortion.

At the same time, the court seemed hesitant to address abortion rights.

"Generally we don't reach constitutional issues unless absolutely necessary," Justice Briana Zamora told Torrez early in the argument.

Torrez said a ruling guaranteeing abortion rights was necessary because, "those who attempt to limit access to women's healthcare have not and will not stop attempting to do so."

The court did not say when it would rule.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)

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