Amarillo says it needs more time to discuss the abortion travel ban

Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley says the council used this week’s session as a way to “divide and conquer things” and get back to what makes the most sense for the city.

Photo courtesy of the Cole Stanley Campaign

AMARILLO — The Amarillo City Council extended its debate on the so-called abortion travel ban after spending more than two hours in front of a packed room reviewing draft rules that would try to block access to Colorado and New Mexico, two states where a Texas woman can legally have an abortion.

This week, the five-member council discussed three different drafts of the ordinance with different measures in each and left the table without a decision. Abortion rights activists and legal scholars have sharply criticized the regulations, calling them unconstitutional.

The meeting offered a rare window into how a local government navigates one of America’s most difficult and politically charged issues. The council — which does not include women — governs a city of more than 200,000 people and bucked the trend of other smaller, rural cities and counties that have passed similar ordinances without much debate.

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Amarillo’s council has already spent three separate meetings fighting over whether to approve rules first proposed by anti-abortion activists. The Panhandle city was a hot spot for the debate because Interstates 40 and 27 run through the city.

Instead of the usual council seat, the session was held in the town’s community center to accommodate the crowd. Almost every seat in the hall was taken, although the council did not allow public comment at the time.

Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley said the council is using the session as a way to “divide and conquer things” and get back to what makes the most sense for the city.

“Keeping our citizens in mind first, not what’s popular,” Stanley said.

Stanley said the council needs to answer important questions about the ordinance — does local government have a role and duty to protect life? Can they further protect life? Has the state done enough?

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Two council members, Don Tipps and Josh Craft, agreed that the council has a duty to protect life. Lee Simpson said they were miles ahead of him on the ordinance.

“I’m willing to commit to asking questions so I can then come to an opinion on whether this is the right thing for our community,” Simpson said.

Simpson later suggested that the council should do more to address human trafficking, which he said could go a long way in protecting children and preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions. An older woman in the crowd broke propriety and booed his proposal.

Councilman Tom Sherlen also criticized the council’s performance. He called one project an overreach and said it would be bad for business.

“We’re not in elementary school,” he said. “You can’t just regulate business. You’re trying to overreact the government here.

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Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the US. And these travel bans are an attempt to stop pregnant Texans from traveling to other states where the abortion procedure remains legal.

The ordinance does not directly stop interstate travel by placing physical barriers or checkpoints on the Texas-New Mexico border. Instead, the policy would prohibit the use of Amarillo roads to transport a pregnant woman for an abortion in another state, opening the door to lawsuits by private Texans against anyone who “aids and abets” the procedure. Residents criticized it as a tactic that pits neighbor against neighbor.

Supporters behind the ordinance are closely following the handbook for Senate Bill 8, a 2021 law enforced entirely through private lawsuits that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

So far, five Texas counties — Lubbock, Cochran, Mitchell, Goliad and, as of this week, Dawson — have passed travel bans. Odessa, population nearly 117,000, and Little-River Academy, a small town of 2,200, have also adopted similar policies. Most of the areas that have adopted the ordinance are near the Texas-New Mexico border.

The Amarillo Council first heard arguments on the ordinance in late October — just a day after county commissioners in neighboring Lubbock approved a similar policy. Council members then tabled the question to hear more from residents.

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The council proposed at this week’s session that any ordinance they agree on go through several rounds of legal review before a final vote.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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