The Texas bill aims to stem the tide of local abortion travel bans

A Texas state senator is trying to block a wave of local anti-abortion measures — specifically, a growing number of bans that seek to bar women seeking the procedure out of state from traveling through certain counties.

State Sen. Nate Johnson (D) introduced a bill that would ban such bans Monday after a push by Republicans to subordinate local government to the state legislature on a wide range of local issues.

The new bill would prohibit municipalities or counties from adopting or enforcing any ordinance that “prohibits the travel of a person through the municipality or county by reason of the purpose of such travel.”

“I generally have a lot of respect for local authorities in matters of local government. But this is not about local government,” Johnson said.

Instead, he argued, “this is a flagrant violation of the constitutional right to interstate travel. This is pernicious big government that operates at the local level.

“For the benefit of all citizens, the state has a duty to stop it,” he added.

The abortion travel bans have passed in several rural counties and small towns in Texas as an extension of the “Sanctuary Cities” movement, which now counts 47 cities as signatories, most in a wide swath of the state’s north. .

In late October, the county in which the northwest Texas college town of Lubbock is located voted to ban women seeking abortions in New Mexico from passing through the area, according to The Texas Tribune.

It is unclear how such a ban would be enforced in practice. A broader state anti-abortion statute passed in 2021 banned doctors in Texas from performing an abortion after detecting a fetal heartbeat, which usually occurs around six weeks into pregnancy.

Under the state statute, doctors who perform abortions face first-degree felony charges — a legal category that includes murder — the loss of their medical licenses and up to $100,000 in civil penalties.

But the law does not prohibit Texans from having abortions. Instead, pregnant women are expressly excluded from enforcement, whether civil or criminal: the state statute expressly prohibits any “liability or penalties against a pregnant woman upon whom an abortion has been performed, induced, or attempted.”

Lubbock’s abortion travel ban exposes those traveling through the county with women seeking the procedure to the possibility of being sued by private citizens, who could then collect the fine — though it imposes no legal consequences on the women themselves.

The local bans and legislative attempts to stop them are part of a broader fight in Texas over abortion following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which ended nearly 50 years of federal protections for the procedure, though state initiatives have already made it effectively unaffordable in much of the country.

Later this month, the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments in a bitter legal dispute over whether doctors in the state can legally perform abortions on women who have serious pregnancy complications.

A federal judge ruled in July that doctors can perform abortions in such cases, but an appeal by the Texas attorney general’s office blocked that ruling.

Among Texans themselves, abortion rights have garnered broad public support this year. In April 2023, a poll found that 58 percent of Texans said it was important for the state legislature to expand legal access to abortion, compared to 37 percent who found it unimportant.

During the state legislative session underway at the time, the legislature passed House Bill 3058, which exempts doctors from penalties if they perform abortions to resolve two potentially life-threatening complications, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Legislature, however, refused to accept exceptions to the state’s abortion ban that would have allowed the procedure in cases of rape or incest.

After the session, a June poll found that 45 percent of Texans disapproved of the legislature’s record on abortion, compared with 38 percent who approved.

Abortion protection measures passed by wide margins earlier this month in states even more conservative than Texas, such as Ohio. But putting an abortion referendum on the Texas ballot would require the conservative Legislature to sign off, as reported by The Texas Observer.

Local abortion travel bans are controversial, even on the right. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh argued, agreeing with the court’s decision in Dobbs, that such bans are unconstitutional.

“For example, can a state prohibit a resident of that state from traveling to another state to have an abortion? In my view, the answer is no based on the constitutional right to interstate travel,” he wrote.

The legal issues at play seemed to give Lubbock County Judge pause — the Texas county’s chief executive officer.

“We’re a pro-life county, but we shouldn’t need a piece of paper that says you can’t drive on our roads,” Judge Curtis Parrish (R) said at a council meeting, explaining why he wanted the measure delayed .

Parrish abstained from the subsequent vote by county commissioners in which the measure passed, even though it applies only to parts of the county not administered by the city of Lubbock, which has no such ban.

The similarly conservative city of Amarillo, a two-hour drive due north, has so far refused to pass a similar measure — despite widespread anti-abortion sentiment on the council.

“There are a few other cities that have passed this and it’s good for them, but what we want to do is what’s best for all of you,” Amarillo Councilman Don Tipps said in a vote held the day after the passage of the Lubbock ban, as reported by the Tribune.

The measure would have exposed anyone who helped a woman travel across the county to have an abortion — even in the first six weeks after conception, when even Texas’ strict abortion ban after 2021 allows the procedure — to hefty legal fines.

That increased limit was a major benefit of the proposed bill, said Mark Lee Dixon of Right to Life East Texas, an organization based across the state that sent activists to Amarillo for a hearing last month.

Dixon argued that driving a pregnant woman across the county to perform an abortion was akin to being the getaway driver in a bank robbery.

“We do not interfere with the right to travel; a woman can still drive to New Mexico for an abortion,” Dixon said at the time. “What she doesn’t allow is anyone assisting her in this act.”

The City Council, however, was unconvinced and voted against the measure — joining cities like Chandler in conservative East Texas, which in September voted against a travel abortion ban on the grounds that it was unenforceable by local governments.

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