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A Texas group that wants to ban abortion nationwide is targeting New Mexico

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The group that wants to ban abortion nationwide is targeting New Mexico. Abortion remains legal in that state. But the group from neighboring Texas is trying to change that. They encourage local governments in New Mexico to write local laws restricting abortion. KUNM's Alice Fordham reports on that effort and the reaction.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Last June, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, Whole Woman's Health started fundraising to move their Texas operations to New Mexico. They looked at cities close to Texas, like Clovis and Hobbs. But those cities are conservative. By November, Hobbs was debating an ordinance strictly limiting access. Resident Henry DeLara stepped up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRY DELARA: We can make a statement that, no, not here in this county, not here in this city and, eventually, not here in this state.

FORDHAM: The rule passed the council unanimously.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

FORDHAM: Before long, other cities and counties followed.

LAURA WIGHT: It's funny when I look back on it. And it's sort of like, man, it all happened really quickly.

FORDHAM: Laura Wight is a university librarian in Clovis. She supports abortion access and organizes with a group called Eastern New Mexico Rising. Last summer, she realized anti-abortion campaigners from Texas were holding rallies in churches. Then...

WIGHT: One of the churches was going to bring this issue to the city commission as wanting to try and put forward this sanctuary city ordinance.

FORDHAM: These ordinances are similar to ones in Texas, Iowa, Ohio and Nebraska. That's because the Texan group, Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, helps local officials write rules. It's led by Mark Lee Dickson, who says he only got more active after Roe was overturned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK LEE DICKSON: My life ended up getting way busier.

(LAUGHTER)

FORDHAM: After he led a meeting in a church in the city of Rio Rancho last month, he explained the ordinances cite a federal law from the 1800s known as the Comstock Act, after famed anti-vice campaigner Anthony Comstock, who lobbied for an act which bans the mailing of pornography, sex toys and drugs that could be used for an abortion.

DICKSON: Anthony Comstock would be pleased at how this law that bears his name is being used, because if he was alive today, he would be disgusted.

FORDHAM: Dickson calls ordinances banning mailing of abortion medication de facto abortion bans. In New Mexico, he's facing a particularly concerted counter effort. There's a proposed state law to stop public bodies from interfering with reproductive care. And there's the state attorney general, a Democrat, Raul Torrez. He filed a legal challenge.

RAUL TORREZ: Asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to stop the enforcement of those local ordinances.

FORDHAM: Because, he says, local governments don't regulate health care in that way. He wants the court to...

TORREZ: Finally articulate the constitutional basis for a woman's right to reproductive health care, not grounded in the federal constitution, but in the state constitution.

FORDHAM: Torrez also points out the U.S. Department of Justice released a memo last year saying the Comstock Act doesn't prohibit the mailing of legal abortion medication. Other attorneys general have challenged local ordinances and refused to enforce old abortion bans. But Torrez is the first to take on Mark Lee Dickson, who welcomes his challenge.

DICKSON: This is not something that they should take lightly, for sure, that this is a real possibility that their actions could lead to the end of abortion in every single state in America.

FORDHAM: What could happen is that the local authorities could seek to take the case to federal court, which could eventually land it in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which legal scholars think could interpret the law to mean no one can mail abortion medication or even related medical equipment. Mary Ziegler, a historian and law professor at the University of California, Davis, says there's an argument that...

MARY ZIEGLER: This is a trap - right? - that these ordinances are designed to provoke litigation that will do nothing but harm for abortion rights in states like New Mexico. And, you know, I mean, I think that's a real possibility given who's on the Supreme Court.

FORDHAM: Attorney General Torrez acknowledges the risk, but says it's a matter of principle.

TORREZ: We can't be retreating every time because we are trying to predict how ideology or politics is infecting the judicial branch. We can't.

FORDHAM: New Mexico's Supreme Court has not yet set a date to hear Torrez's challenge. But next door in Texas, another Comstock case is ongoing. As Mark Lee Dickson says, the end of Roe is far from the end of a highly strategic legal battle against abortion.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.