By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Voters in Albuquerque will decide on Tuesday on an initiative that would outlaw most late-term abortions in New Mexico's largest city, marking the first such measure placed on a municipal ballot in the United States.
The measure, if approved, would bar doctors within city limits from performing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, allowing for few of the exemptions provided for in most late-term abortion bans enacted in other states 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. An immediate court challenge is expected should the measure pass.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, but ruled that unless the mother's health were at risk, states could place restrictions on abortion at the point when a fetus could potentially survive outside the womb, generally seen 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 the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in recent years by seeking to curtail abortions at earlier stages of pregnancy.
The Albuquerque measure is patterned after restrictions enacted by 12 states on hotly debated medical research suggesting a fetus feels pain starting at 20 weeks of gestation.
Two of those states, North Dakota and Arkansas, went further by also recently banning abortion as early as six and 12 weeks, respectively. Those more restrictive bans have been put on hold by courts. Courts have likewise blocked 20-week abortion bans in Arizona, Georgia and Idaho.
Albuquerque is home to 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.
Their existence has led abortion foes 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 measure.
Julianna Koob, legislative advocate for Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, agreed that 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 state attorney general, Gary King, has called the proposed measure "unconstitutional and unenforceable."
A legal expert said it would likely be challenged in court based in part on the argument that regulating abortion was a matter for the state, not the city.
"They can't regulate in areas that are mainly matters of state law," said Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a law professor at the University of New Mexico.
Patrick Davis, a spokesman for ProgressNowNM, a non-profit group that supports abortion rights, said approval of the measure 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."
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman, Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay)