Anti-abortion supporters gather around the Texas Capitol during a Texas Rally for Life, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Austin, Texas.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

Some Small Texas Towns Are Declaring Themselves ‘Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn’

Frustrated with the Legislature, Texas city officials are taking on abortion rights through local policy measures.


Update, September 25, 2019: This story, originally published on September 18, 2019, has been updated to reflect news that additional towns have passed citywide abortion bans.

When it comes to the Texas Legislature’s actions on abortion restrictions this year, virtually no one is happy. For abortion-rights advocates, it was yet another session of playing defense, with lawmakers ultimately passing several measures that opponents say turn “lies into laws” and dramatically limit access to reproductive health care. To anti-abortion activists, the Lege squandered an opportunity to ban or nearly ban the procedure in light of a new conservative Supreme Court majority, a tactic pursued by states like Alabama and Georgia. Ironically, people in both camps agree that Senate Bill 22, the Legislature’s anti-Planned Parenthood bill that went into effect this month, doesn’t actually stop abortions—though it does block family planning, cancer screenings, sex education, and other preventive health services.

So, with a year and a half before lawmakers convene again in Austin, local officials and advocates are taking matters into their own hands, with measures that aim to restrict or expand abortion access within city limits.

On the restriction side, there is a growing movement to pass citywide abortion bans. Anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life has called on Texans to declare where they live a “Mother and Unborn Child Sanctuary City” with success among a few localities. In June, the all-male city council in Waskom, on the border with Louisiana, became the first to pass this kind of measure, declaring abortion to be murder and banning the procedure within city limits. The ordinance declares the Roe v. Wade decision affirming a constitutional right to abortion to be “a lawless and illegitimate act of judicial usurpation,” and states that “recent changes of membership on the Supreme Court indicate that the pro-abortion justices have lost their majority.” The East Texas towns of Omaha, Naples, and Joaquin passed similar ordinances in mid-September, followed by Tenaha and Gilmer later this month, bringing the total to six Texas towns as of September 25. Mineral Wells rejected such a measure in July.

Anti-abortion advocates gather outside the Capitol in Austin for the Texas Rally for Life in January 2018.  Sophie Novack

The anti-abortion ordinances are largely symbolic. There are no abortion clinics in these towns anyway; if the governments did try to actually block services, they would open themselves to a court challenge, something Waskom officials acknowledged when approving the measure. Reproductive rights groups responded to the Waskom ordinance this summer by putting up billboards in town declaring “Abortion is Freedom,” and reminding residents that the procedure is still legal and available.

Organizers behind the local ordinances—like Texas Right to Life and Right to Life East Texas—are targeting other Texas cities to pass similar measures next, while singling Austin out as a “city of death.”

Partly in response to these local bans, the Austin City Council approved a new budget last week that includes $150,000 for abortion support services, reportedly the first move of its kind in the U.S. The money will not directly fund abortions, which is prohibited by state law, but it is earmarked for transportation, childcare, hotels, and other financial barriers to obtaining the procedure, particularly under strict state laws that mandate multiple doctor visits.

A Handmaid’s Tale-themed protest in the Capitol to protest anti-abortion legislation in 2017.  Sophie Novack

“City Hall and the Capitol are only one mile apart, but they’re worlds apart” when it comes to reproductive health care, said Leslie Pool, one of the Austin City Council members who worked with groups like NARAL, the Lilith Fund, and Fund Texas Choice on the budget measure. As red states pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws and the Trump administration follows Texas’ lead in diverting family planning funds to anti-abortion organizations over established health providers, those who championed the Austin strategy hope it inspires other cities in Texas and around the country.

“It’s really important for our progressive cities to not just be sites of resistance, but to also be places of progress,” said council member Greg Casar. “So that people see what we’re fighting for, not just what we’re fighting against.”

In the Legislature, the debate over state versus local policymaking on reproductive health came to a head in the May House debate over SB 22. The bill, which went into effect on September 1, bans transactions between local governments and abortion providers and their affiliates, targeting partnerships like the City of Austin’s lease agreement with a Planned Parenthood clinic, a condom distribution program in El Paso, distribution of Zika prevention kits in the Rio Grande Valley, sex education programs across the state, and more. Democrats argued that the restriction is a hypocritical attack on local control, which Republicans purport to support.

Ironically, people in both camps agree that Senate Bill 22, the Legislature’s anti-Planned Parenthood bill that went into effect this month, doesn’t actually stop abortions—though it does block family planning, cancer screenings, sex education, and other preventive health services.

In response, state Representative Jonathan Stickland proposed an amendment stating that the measure “may not be construed to restrict a municipality or county from prohibiting abortion.” This was the last amendment proposed to SB 22, and the only one to pass. In an unusual move, the bill’s House sponsor, Allen Republican Candy Noble, refused to take any questions from Democrats and said she would oppose all amendments filed, because she didn’t have time to read them or consider their implications. These included proposals to exempt services related to care for survivors of sexual assault, and in areas with high uninsured rates and high rates of teen pregnancy. Then Noble approved Stickland’s amendment without it being read aloud. It passed mostly along party lines. “I had a feeling that little amendment I wrote might come in handy,” Stickland wrote on Facebook in June, with a link to a news story about the Waskom abortion ordinance.

Despite a lawsuit over the Austin budget filed by a former city council member just after it was passed, current city officials are confident it will hold up to scrutiny from courts, and that measures to ban abortion locally would not. “Individual liberties are not just for anti-abortion extremists,” council member Pool said last week.

Meanwhile, following passage of Austin’s budget measure, state Representative Briscoe Cain tweeted that it was “past time” for the Legislature to “abolish” Texas’ capital city. Cain, who recently gained national notoriety for threatening Beto O’Rourke that his AR-15 is “ready for you,” proposed a six-week abortion ban last session. When that bill didn’t pass, he tried to quietly criminalize abortion by tacking an amendment on to a capital murder bill to include the procedure as “criminal homicide.” That amendment failed. When a Democratic lawmaker pointed out earlier in the legislative session that a proposed measure unrelated to abortion was unconstitutional, Cain responded on the House floor: “The Supreme Court also thinks it’s OK to kill a baby in its mother’s womb, so don’t talk to me about what the Supreme Court thinks.”

Read more from the Observer:

Enjoy this story? Want to support the writer? We are a journalism non-profit that relies on readers—not corporations or special interests—so we can always tell the unvarnished truth. Help us keep up the fight for Texas by donating to our tip jar.