ACLU Sues East Texas Towns Over ‘Sanctuary City for the Unborn’ Ordinances

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two abortion access groups that were named “criminal organizations” by the local ordinances.

Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court.
Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two abortion access groups that were named “criminal organizations” by the local ordinances.

Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court.
Pro-abortion rights protesters rally outside the Supreme Court. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against seven East Texas towns that recently passed anti-abortion ordinances declaring themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two reproductive rights groups in Texas that are among those deemed “criminal organizations” by these cities and barred from operating in them. 

The abortion bans are largely symbolic—none of the towns that have passed them have abortion providers anyway, and banning the procedure is unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade. But the ordinances would immediately outlaw abortion if Roe was overturned, and in the meantime, the plaintiffs argue, confuse residents who may think abortion is now illegal. (The Lilith Fund put up billboards in parts of East Texas last summer reminding residents the procedure is still legal and accessible.) 

The lawsuit was filed against the cities of Waskom, Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary, and Wells. The all-male city council in Waskom, on the Texas-Louisiana border, became the first to pass this kind of measure last June, while acknowledging it could open them up to a court challenge. A few other towns not included in the lawsuit have also approved similar measures in recent months, bringing the total to eleven. At least three others have rejected measures amid concerns of legal challenges. 

The plaintiffs argue that the “punishing and discriminatory” ordinances violate their free speech, impede their ability to educate and advocate for abortion access in these areas, and designate them as criminal “without ever having been charged with a crime, much less afforded a trial.”

“A major part of our work is to make sure every Texan knows their rights and can find legitimate, fact-based information about getting an abortion—regardless of income or zip code,” Amanda Williams, executive director of Lilith Fund, said in a statement. “These would-be abortion bans are deliberately designed to confuse people about their rights and push safe abortion care further out of reach.”

The ordinances followed a legislative session that far-right advocates argue didn’t go far enough in outlawing abortion—an outright abortion ban and a six-week ban failed to pass in either chamber. So activists have turned to conservative local governments instead. Representatives from Texas Right to Life, one of the anti-abortion groups supporting these bans, have visited city council meetings across the state to encourage their passage. The organization expected a legal battle. “As always, we aren’t afraid for pro-life laws to be challenged in court,” Kimberlyn Schwartz, director of media and communication at Texas Right to Life, wrote in an email. She called the lawsuit “scattershot” and a “hodgepodge of complaints,” adding that the group “looks forward to standing alongside these brave cities.” 

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Sophie Novack is a staff writer covering public health at the Observer. She previously covered health care policy and politics at National Journal in Washington, D.C. You can contact her at [email protected].


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