Legislators must place greater importance on protecting rights

Three human rights bills dealt with during the Legislature's 30-day session, which ended Thursday, reveal a deep-seated prejudice against woman, children and anyone else who lives outside the rigid traditional channels of our culture — in other words, the majority of people in the state.

One bill, giving unmarried couples basic health care rights, such as mutual insurance coverage and visitation privileges, was defeated in the state Senate, in a procedural move that countered a heartening victory in the state House.

Another bill, which has received overwhelming legislative approval, makes "human trafficking" a felony. I'm surprised it wasn't already. And the penalties for this crime against humanity are still insufficient.

The third bill, levying harsher penalties for domestic violence, while a step in the right direction, is dangerously inadequate. Senate Bill 68, passed by both houses, makes battering a family member a felony; it used to be only a misdemeanor, unless felony aggravated battery is committed. With SB 68, battered spouses, overwhelmingly women, have to suffer three acts of brutality and mayhem and be a witness in three convictions of their domestic abuser, before his crime becomes a third-degree felony, punishable up to three years in jail.

Domestic violence is not a "family problem," it's a human-rights problem that wrecks lives and causes grievous mental and physical harm to victims. It should be a first-degree felony the first time. Anything less gives the impression that battering household members is merely unfortunate rather than a disastrous crime.

Nothing short of state terrorism and torture is as horrible as slavery or human trafficking. Senate Bill 71, which makes enslaving someone a separate crime in New Mexico, is also a step in the right direction. It's a third-degree felony to enslave someone, usually a woman often sold into the sex trade. If a child under 13 is enslaved, that's a first-degree felony. For a child under 16 it would be a second-degree felony.

But parsing out degrees of severity in such crimes also makes it seem that some forms of human trafficking aren't as bad others. They are all bad. Anytime someone is forced into bondage, for any reason, a heinous crime against humanity has been committed, no matter the person's age.

The domestic partnership bill was defeated in the Senate by people who apparently hate homosexuals and look down on heterosexual families who live outside traditional marriage.

I'm sure they think hate has nothing to do with it. They feel they are protecting, somehow, the sanctity of marriage as a principle. But the effect of their actions is to cause a human-rights crisis for tens of thousands of people in this state and their relatives and children — in fact, for all people who live with someone "out of wedlock."

This is a grave and ancient injustice. It should not stand any longer.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
February 16, 2008