What Happens in Albuquerque

Feature: On the front lines of a pro-life fight in New Mexico

Pro-life supporters / AP
November 14, 2013

Albuquerque, N.M. — The office space is nearly empty save a few faux-wood desks littered with paper. The blinds are drawn. A man in an elegant three-piece suit mans one of 22 phones below a sign that says "Smile and Dial: Please Stick to the Script." Suite 500 at 2625 Pennsylvania Rd. NW could easily be mistaken for a shell corporation if it weren’t for all the children scurrying around the man and his fellow phone-bankers-- mothers and grandmothers in pink and black.

They will make more than 6,000 calls on Tuesday, and no, they’re not selling timeshares or gimmicky investment opportunities. Albuquerque voters will decide the fate of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance, one of the most audacious ballot initiatives the country has seen in some time, on Nov. 19, and these amateur telemarketers are clarifying to friendly voters that a "For" vote will ban abortions within Albuquerque city limits after babies can feel pain, which comes at about 20 weeks.

They are outgunned, out-funded, and out-organized. Popular Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who was elected with substantial social conservative support, refuses to get involved. They can still win.

Thirteen state legislatures have passed such bans and similar legislation is dormant in the U.S. House and Senate, but Albuquerque is the first city to ever put the vote directly in the hands of residents. This liberal, mid-size, southwestern city could be a bellwether in the fight against abortion, according to Emily Buchanan, the executive vice president of Susan B. Anthony List, the pro-life nonprofit coordinating the campaign.

Albuquerque is 187 square miles of Adobe sprawl, New Mexico’s only truly big city with 550,000 residents. Nearly half the city is Hispanic, giving Democrats a sizable registration advantage. It is also the late-term abortion capital of the country thanks to zero regulations and the $177,000 taxpayer dollars that were spent here on abortion in 2012.

President Barack Obama, who killed legislation to practice life-saving medicine on abortion survivors as an Illinois State Senator, won Albuquerque by 15 points in 2012.

And yet a September poll taken by the Albuquerque Journal found that voters supported the ban 54-39, making late term abortion less popular among residents than Mitt Romney was in 2012. Nearly 60 percent of Hispanic voters supported the ban, as did 35 percent of Democrats.

"When voters are confronted with the reality of late term abortion, they recoil at that," Buchanan says by way of explaining the poll results.

But that was before the flood. Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, NARAL, and Organizing for America have quietly dumped more than $800,000 into Albuquerque, controlling a near monopoly on television advertising. Professional activists have been bused in from Arizona and Colorado to help union members canvass Albuquerque neighborhoods using the technology that carried Obama to victory in 2012.

The ban’s supporters are being outspent 4-1 even with a last-minute, six-figure push from Susan B. Anthony List. And that’s not their only disadvantage. At one point I asked volunteer coordinator Peter Zeikus about the phone bank.

"We’ve got the most advanced system in the world working for us. It’s called I-360—the same one McCain used," he says.

Susan B. Anthony List campaign manager Andy Blom is fond of saying, "They may be bigger than us, but they’re faster too."

Blom’s not exactly an optimist, but he knows that the easiest way to motivate is to laugh. He spent his career as an award-winning, atheistic ad-man because of a botched interview at a now-defunct Baltimore alt-weekly called Harry.

"A young editor took me out to a bar for four hours to tell me why I shouldn’t be a reporter. I went into advertising," he recalls with a laugh. "That was the first time I met P.J. O’Rourke."

All he needs to win is $250,000 "so we can have at least 40 percent of what the other side is spending," but he’s not holding his breath. Nor is he worried. The pro-choicers have the money and the machine; the pro-lifers have the motivation and the momentum.

And they have volunteers like Shirley Torrez.

Shirley was 34 going on 35 when she got pregnant with her third child in 1991. It wasn’t planned. The atmosphere at her doctor’s office was much more tense than her past pregnancies. She didn’t understand why until a second-trimester check-up. The doctor blurted it out: Shirley’s age meant the baby had a high-risk of Downs syndrome.

The doctor insisted on amniocentesis, though, Torrez says, he left out the fact that "the procedure has a high false-positive rate." Nor did he mention that nine out of 10 babies that test positive for Downs are aborted by a process called MOLD in which a doctor injects lethal chemicals into the baby, waits a few days, then rips her out limb by limb.

Shirley refused the test because "nothing about it made her any less my child."

Her daughter was born without Downs, graduated high school at 16, college at 21, and now serves as communications director for Defending Albuquerque Women and Children.

"It saddens me that many babies are killed based off of those test results and they come so late," she says. "Someone told me my daughter was going to have Downs and she’s excelled at everything."


Nine months ago the ballot initiative was a fantasy shared by four people. The idea sprang up in February 2013 when former political strategist Elisa Martinez pitched Catholic activist Sarah Wilson and "anti-abortion ambassadors" Bud and Tara Shaver on the concept of putting the fetal pain ban to a popular vote. They began knocking on doors to gather the necessary 12,100 signatures to get on the ballot in late spring. They turned in 27,000 in August.

"We have a core group of dedicated supporters that’s spent 12 hours a day to reach voters in the city for months," Martinez says. "People, even pro-choice people, realize there’s something wrong with the killing of babies that are viable or on the cusp of viability."

The coalition of volunteers splintered over tactics. The Shaver family, members of Operation Rescue, campaigns beside gruesome images of abortion victims, while Martinez and others appeal to personal contact and empathy. They are quick to point out that the waiver forms for late-term abortions actually say that aborting the baby is riskier than carrying the baby to term. And mothers who seek third trimester abortions are 90 times more likely to die than those seeking early abortions, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute.

One man close to the campaign knows exactly how the mothers seeking late-term abortions are being treated. Dr. Anthony Levatino performed more than 1,200 abortions in the 1980s before re-evaluating his pro-choice stance after his young daughter was killed in a traffic accident.

He doesn’t shy away from the details of his past. He provided graphic testimony to Congress in May about how he dismembered babies of the same age as convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell’s victims to help mothers become "un-pregnant."

He repeated that performance while standing in front of a bookcase in an Evangelical Church on Friday. After 10 minutes and three takes, the pro-lifers had a campaign commercial: 30 seconds of the doctor talking about how the majority of late term abortions are performed on "healthy mothers and healthy babies."

"Take it from a real doctor," he bellows into the camera to end the commercial, a dig at the pro-choicer’s reliance on ideologues and retired family physicians for their spots.

Blom scrambles to raise funds for the commercial throughout the day. Planned Parenthood and its allies have gobbled up much of the available airtime over the next week. He knows that combatting "misinformation on the other side" through campaign ads is not going to get the job done. He has to turn out the base.

"Churches are our unions. We need them to come to the polls if we’re going to win," Blom says. "The Catholic Church and the big mega-churches have been talking about this every week. We’ve been told by pastors that the [23,000] early votes are all coming from the churches. We need to make sure they keep it up."

That’s why he has Rev. Chris Donnelly.

Donnelly wears many hats: Air Force veteran, glass blowing artist, pastor, registered lobbyist. He’s six-foot-four and soft-spoken. He grew up worshipping in the same denomination as President Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright in Chicago’s South Side. The military brought him to New Mexico and he now leads dozens of worshippers in prayer in Santa Fe, one hour north of Albuquerque just over the San Dias Mountains. He’s spent the past two months dropping off canvassers throughout the city in an airport van he borrowed from a pastor friend.

He helps the Washington, D.C. campaign guru penetrate New Mexico’s churches, which represent more than 100,000 voters. He and Blom set up a luncheon with dozens of pastors at Love INC, a Christian clearinghouse for servicing the poor.

We arrive at 11:30 a.m. to meet pastors and activists wearing blue jeans and bolo ties. They represent thousands of parishioners and span the spectrum of Evangelical Protestantism—black Churches, Spanish revival churches, white mega-churches, and homeless ministries.

Attendees eat pulled pork sandwiches, lemonade, and peppermint bark as pastors bless the efforts of the pro-life cause.

"Abortion kills two-and-a-half times as many African Americans as all other causes of death combined," Rev. Clarence Washington intones at the start of the meeting to gasps from the assembly. "God will not forgive our sins without some consequence […] we need pastors to lead."

But his talk—and that of many of his fellow speakers—soon veers off course. Everyone focuses on protesting outside late term abortion clinics, rather than getting out the vote to shut them down. No one seems to get that only 16 percent of the 27,000 signatories have voted, while turnout is up in more liberal parts of the city.

Donnelly rises to right the ship.

"If you haven’t spoken on [the vote] yet, this is the last week to give it all you’ve got," he says, pacing across the makeshift podium. "We’re not asking our flock to get run over by tanks, we’re asking them to go to a safe election and check ‘for.’"

"Do you believe you have the power to change the culture? Let me see your hands. If you don’t you’re in the wrong business," he thunders.

Applause erupts from the assembly. A black preacher at our table turns to me: "is that the same guy we were just talking to?"

Blom beams and then comes the closing prayer. Heads bow, eyes close, and the Rev. Spears intones: "Lord we have already won […]" to shouts of Amen and "thank you God for this victory." The preacher invokes Gideon, who won a major battle while vastly outnumbered. Blom winces: democracy requires outnumbering the enemy.

Love INC—the INC stands for In Christ’s Name, rather than incorporated—lies in one of the worst areas of Albuquerque. High poverty, high Hispanic population, and high Democratic registration. The pro-lifers emerge from the luncheon, carrying yard signs and leftovers to pass out to the poor.

Henry and Alberta Estrada approach Love INC’s thrift shop. They are curious. Gary Hanko, who runs the Christian nonprofit Uniting the Way, tells Henry about the vote and hands him the list of early polling places.

The Estradas depart, pledging to "end abortion." However off message the luncheon might have been, the pro-lifers got at least two votes out of it. They have five days to find 70,000 more.

Published under: Abortion , Feature