ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Three years ago, anti-abortion "missionaries" Tara and Bud Shaver left Operation Rescue's base in Kansas with one target: a clinic that abortion opponents say has turned this southwestern city into the late-term abortion capital of America.
But after a loss at the medical board and making little headway in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, their group, Project Defending Life, gathered enough signatures to place a late-term abortion ban on the municipal ballot.
It is believed to be the first such referendum of its kind in the country and is being watched as a possible new front for activism in the abortion wars that have typically been waged at the federal and state levels.
On Tuesday, Albuquerque voters will decide whether to ban abortions after 20 weeks following an emotional and graphic campaign.
There were protests by "abortion holocaust" survivors at the city's holocaust museum and a truck with pictures of aborted fetuses with torn off limbs that was used as a rolling billboard outside early polling places. Hundreds of thousands of dollars on television and radio ads have also brought out more early voters as the recent mayoral elections.
One man yelling "abortion" was dragged away by a group of veterans after interrupting Gov. Susana Martinez's speech Monday at the city's Veterans War Memorial.
The outcome is anyone's guess in a state where abortion has traditionally been a non-issue.
NARAL Pro-Choice America President America Ilyse Hogue said it is the first municipal ballot on abortion that she knows of, and her group is watching the election closely. "I am concerned every single time these extreme ideologues seek to roll back what we believe is settled law in terms of a woman being able to make decisions about her health," Hogue said.
National organizations on both sides have descended on Albuquerque. Among their key targets are Catholics and Hispanics .
Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe is urging Albuquerque parishioners to vote for the ban on late-term abortions, which does not include any exceptions for things like rape, fetal anomalies or threats to the mother's life. But the national group Catholics for Choice is working to counter that message, both in advertisements and on the ground.
"We have been hearing from lots of Catholics in Albuquerque who are unhappy that this is being pushed through their churches, in what is supposed to be a sacred space," said Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director for the group.
Shaver's group, Project Defending Life, has close ties to Operation Rescue and its national network. It has brought in volunteers from around the country to walk districts, lead prayers and help with outreach to churches. It has also employed the tactics Operation Rescue is well-known for.
"Quite frankly I think they are giving misleading and biased information both on the ballot and in the graphic stuff they are using. It is really disrespectful to the voters. ... It doesn't reflect the intelligence of the Albuquerque voters," said Julianna Koob of Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, which is part of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Woman Voters that are campaigning against the measure.
Shaver makes no apologies. For example, the moving billboard, she said, shows pictures of "actual abortion victims. Babies that were killed by abortion. We use the images because as everyone says, a picture speaks louder than 1,000 words."
"We want to restore meaning to the word abortion," Shaver said. "And we want people to realize that this election is literally between life and death."
Shaver said she and her husband first came to New Mexico from Wichita, Kansas, in 2011 because it is home to Southwestern Women's Options, one of just a handful of late-term abortion clinics in the country. Initially, she said, they went after the clinic by combing through 911 calls from the clinic for ambulance services and lobbying lawmakers to tighten the state's abortion laws.
Last year, Shaver was successful in having a state medical board prosecutor bring gross negligence complaint against the director of the clinic, Shelley Sella, based on a 911 call about a woman who suffered a ruptured uterus during a May 2011 abortion there. Sella, who previously worked at the clinic of a Kansas abortion doctor who slain in 2009, ultimately was exonerated.
If the referendum passes, a legal challenge is expected. Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat, has said he believes the law is unconstitutional.
Regardless, Shaver said she is here for the long-haul.
"We are Christians," she said. "We really are led by God. We really believe he brought us here. At this time we have no plans to leave. There is still work to be done. We are really hoping this election will be a springboard for bigger things at the state level."
Asked if other cities with late-term abortion clinics might be targeted in the future, Shaver said, "We are encouraging people to see what can be done at the city level ... We are starting to get calls from people asking us how to do what we have done."