By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, N.M., Nov 19 (Reuters) - Voters in Albuquerque on Tuesday will decide on an initiative to outlaw most late-term abortions in New Mexico's largest city, marking the first such measure placed on a municipal ballot.
The measure would prohibit doctors within city limits from performing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, allowing for few of the exemptions provided for in most of the late-term abortion bans enacted statewide elsewhere in recent years.
No exceptions are made for victims of rape or incest. The ban could be waived only to save a mother's life or if continuing her pregnancy risked "substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function" for the mother.
Public opinion polls suggest sentiment has swung against the Albuquerque initiative since early September, when 54 percent of city voters said they backed the proposal, but an immediate court challenge is expected should the measure pass.
The city's attorney general, Gary King, has said the proposed measure is "unconstitutional and unenforceable."
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
But the high court ruled then that unless the mother's health were at risk, states could place restrictions on the termination of pregnancies at the point of viability - when a fetus could potentially survive outside the womb - generally regarded as starting at 22 to 24 weeks of gestation.
A full-term pregnancy typically is about 40 weeks, and abortions after 20 weeks are rare.
Still, abortion opponents have pushed the boundaries of Roe v. Wade in recent years by seeking to curtail abortions at earlier stages of pregnancy.
The Albuquerque ballot measure is patterned after restrictions enacted by 13 states based on hotly debated medical research suggesting a fetus feels pain starting at 20 weeks of gestation.
North Dakota and Arkansas have gone further, banning abortion as early as six and 12 weeks, respectively, although those bans have been put on hold by courts, pending legal challenges.
Courts have likewise blocked 20-week abortion bans in Arizona, Georgia and Idaho, and the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to review the Arizona law.
'FIRST TEST CASE'
The Albuquerque proposal, which the City Council voted 5-4 in September to place on the ballot, has potential for a statewide impact, as two of the few facilities in the region that perform late-term abortions - the Southwestern Women's Options clinic and the University of New Mexico Center for Reproductive Health - are in Albuquerque.
Their existence has led abortion opponents to refer to Albuquerque as the "late-term abortion capital of the country" and to target the city for the municipal ban, said Elisa Martinez, executive director of the group Protect ABQ Women and Children, which supports the ballot measure.
Julianna Koob, legislative advocate for Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, agreed the two clinics had drawn patients from around the region.
"Because access has been so severely impacted in other cities, women do depend on the clinics here to pursue these safe medical procedures when they are facing some really heartbreaking decisions," she said.
The campaign over the special election has played out on billboards as well as in television and radio ads, and in demonstrations by individuals on both sides of the debate.
Patrick Davis, a spokesman for ProgressNowNM, a non-profit group that supports abortion rights, said passage in Albuquerque could lead to similar proposals showing up on local ballots in hundreds of municipalities across the country.
"Using cities to further the culture wars is definitely something we can expect to see in the future," agreed Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. "This is the first test case." (Reporting by Zelie Pollon; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)