Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have rejected a ban on late-term abortions in a municipal election that was being closely watched as a possible new front in the national abortion fight.

The special election on Tuesday followed an emotional and graphic campaign that brought in national groups and hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising.

The proposal would have banned abortions after 20 weeks except to save the mother's life. Voters defeated the measure 55 percent to 45 percent.

During Tuesday's vote, protesters took to the street

A coalition of abortion rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and Planned Parenthood, called the results a huge victory for Albuquerque women and families.

"Albuquerque families sent a powerful message today - they do not want the government interfering in their private medical decisions," Micaela Cadena with the Respect ABQ Women campaign said in a statement.

"Dangerous, unconstitutional laws like the one we rejected today have no place in Albuquerque, no place in New Mexico, no place anywhere in our nation."

Ilyse Hogue, NARAL Pro-Choice America president, said: "We hope today's resounding defeat of this abortion ban sends a clear message to the extreme forces around the country now trying to impose their agenda on cities around this country."

Abortion opponents hoped a victory in Albuquerque would create momentum nationally in their long-running fight to ban abortion.

'Brilliant strategy'

Father Frank Pavone, national director of the New York-based Priests for Life, said on Tuesday night that anti-abortion activists should not be discouraged.

"It is a brilliant strategy and we will see to it that this effort is introduced in other cities and states," he said in a statement.

"The fact is, of course, that children have in fact been saved through this effort, simply because we have raised the issue of fetal pain, which does not even cross the minds of many abortionists."

Much of the campaign focused on the debate over when and whether fetuses can feel pain.

Albuquerque became the focus of the latest anti-abortion campaign because it's home to Southwestern Women's Options, one of just a handful of clinics in the country that perform late-term abortions.

A leader of the initiative, Tara Shaver, said her group gathered signatures to put the issue to city voters after failing to make headway in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

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."

Police were stationed near polling places around the city Tuesday as protesters from both sides tried to persuade voters who were lining up before the polls closed.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies