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Dr. Franz Theard in his office at the Women’s Reproductive Clinic of New Mexico in Santa Teresa.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

In the nearly 50 years that he’s been performing abortions, Dr. Franz Theard has put up with persistent intimidation. Anti-abortion activists have blockaded his clinic, picketed in front of his house and burst into his waiting room, hurling abuse at patients through a megaphone. His children were even bullied in school.

But Dr. Theard is undeterred. A bearded, bespectacled 73-year-old, he says his long-held political principles won’t allow him to back down.

“I’m to the left of Che Guevara,” he says with a laugh as he sits in his office at the Women’s Reproductive Clinic of New Mexico. “I’m a secular humanist. I believe in one rule: Treat people the same way you want to be treated.”

Plus, Dr. Theard has long provided his services in a place where they are particularly hard to access. He spent most of his career in El Paso, Tex., even as a series of state laws made it increasingly difficult to keep a clinic open. Ultimately, he decamped 1.5 kilometres across the state line, to a suburban office park in New Mexico, where there are no restrictions on abortion.

Since last year, when Texas effectively banned the procedure after six weeks, demand for Dr. Theard’s help has skyrocketed. “In April of 2021, we did 180 abortions. Last month, we did 280,” he says. “People come in from Houston, Dallas, they spend eight hours to get here.”

This experience is a preview of the likely future of abortion in vast swaths of the United States. A leaked Supreme Court draft ruling shows five conservative justices are planning to overturn Roe v. Wade. If that happens, more than 20 states are poised to enact abortion bans, and the cross-border work of providers such as Dr. Theard will become increasingly vital.

It also spotlights the central role New Mexico would play in preserving access.

A desert state of 2.1 million, it is frequently overlooked as a beacon of reproductive rights, overshadowed by the metropolises of the northeast or the West Coast. But New Mexico has one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws, even as it borders four states – Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah – that have either banned the procedure or plan to. This week, Oklahoma lawmakers passed the country’s strictest law yet, forbidding all abortions from the moment of conception.

Anticipating the Supreme Court decision, New Mexico’s legislature and governor last year proactively repealed the state’s 1960s abortion ban, which would have gone back into effect if Roe were overturned. The state’s new law allows for abortion without restrictions. There are currently six clinics in operation.

Micaela Lara Cadena, a state lawmaker who sponsored last year’s abortion legislation, says many of her colleagues doubted that a largely rural, often culturally conservative state would accept unfettered abortion access. The key to proving otherwise, she says, was to have the message come from people such as her: a Catholic, Hispanic mother of two.

She faced pushback at mass, when men would approach her to say she wasn’t a true Catholic. But most people backed her efforts, she says. When she told her priest she planned to sponsor the bill, he told her simply to vote her conscience.

New Mexico State Representative Micaela Lara Cadena in Las Cruces on May 20.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

“New Mexicans can hold their own moral and faith beliefs and preferences about abortion, and still trust someone to make those private decisions for themselves. Pregnancy is sacred,” says Ms. Lara Cardena, 38, as she watches her older daughter at high-school track-team practice in Las Cruces, a city of 100,000 flanked by bare, craggy mountains.

Hispanic and Indigenous community organizations played a pivotal role, mobilizing voters to flood Zoom town halls and urge wavering state lawmakers to back the bill.

When Ceci Pinon, a 42-year-old social worker, spoke in favour of the law as a member of Strong Families New Mexico, a social policy advocacy group, she could address its importance from personal experience. Ms. Pinon became pregnant with her first child at age 14.

With her conservative, farmhand parents, abortion was off the table. She was also kicked out of her school, which told her she was “setting a bad example” for other girls in her class, she says.

“I didn’t have the option of an abortion at that time. I was a child taking care of a child,” Ms. Pinon recalls. “My daughter is now 27. She has options. She makes her decisions.”

Nicole Martin, a New Mexico-based organizer with Indigenous Women Rising, says requests for help from her group’s abortion fund increased after the Texas law was passed. There was so much demand that the fund became depleted last month, Ms. Martin says. It started accepting new requests for help last week.

Some states are proposing laws that would target these funds in a bid to stop people crossing state lines for abortions. But Ms. Martin, 30, vows her group isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re willing to take on the legal risks and the financial risks to make sure that Indigenous people receive safe and equitable health care,” she says.

A similar level of resolve animates Dr. Theard. A Haitian-American who came to the U.S. in 1964, he has been performing abortions since 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade.

In one sign of the sheer demand for his services, he says he’s even had people who denounce him in public come privately to him for assistance. “I’ve done abortions on senators’ daughters. They always come in and say ‘I’m against this, but this is a special case,’” he says.

Currently, he only offers medication abortion. He stopped performing surgical abortions after his long-time business partner died of COVID-19 in 2020, and he had to take on the additional duties of administering the clinic. But other New Mexico clinics, in Albuquerque, perform the procedure. And Dr. Theard hopes to find a younger doctor to join him and provide the service again.

He says he’s ready to expand his clinic to handle any post-Roe influx from out of state.

“We’re here, we’ll help. We are encouraging people to come,” he says. “I want to be known as a sanctuary.”

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