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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Texas, local laws to prevent travel for abortions gain momentum

An anti-abortion rally in downtown Amarillo, Texas, Feb. 11, 2023. Lubbock County, home to more than 300,000 near the New Mexico border, has become the fourth and largest Texas county to bar travel assistance for abortions.

By J. David Goodman

In recent months, opponents of abortion in Texas have succeeded in passing a growing number of local ordinances to prevent people from helping women travel to have abortions in nearby states that still allow the procedure.

On Monday, Lubbock County, a conservative hub of more than 300,000 residents near the border with New Mexico, became the largest county yet to enact such a ban. The county commissioners court, during a public meeting that drew occasionally impassioned testimony, voted to make it illegal for anyone to transport a pregnant woman through the county, or pay for her travel, for the purpose of seeking an abortion.

The county, which includes the city of Lubbock and Texas Tech University, joined three other far smaller counties — one along the New Mexico border and two others in the middle of the state — in passing ordinances that were drafted in part by the architect of Texas’ six-week abortion ban, adopted in 2021 even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

The city of Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, on Tuesday held an hourslong public hearing to consider a similar ordinance, which would apply to a network of roads and highways that pass through the city of 200,000 and lead toward New Mexico and Colorado, states where many Texas women have traveled for procedures.

“These abortion trafficking ordinances really are the next stage in an abortion-free America,” said Mark Lee Dickson, an anti-abortion activist who has traveled the state in support of the ordinances. He said he expected several more counties to adopt similar measures in the next few months.

The ordinances have been drafted by Dickson and Jonathan Mitchell, the former solicitor general of Texas who crafted the state’s 2021 abortion ban, and they rely on the same enforcement mechanism as the abortion ban: lawsuits by private citizens. They specifically prohibit the police, sheriffs or other county officers or employees from enforcing the ban — a means of avoiding an immediate court challenge and possible injunction.

Practically speaking, someone would have to learn of a person assisting a pregnant woman with travel out of state for a procedure in order to bring a suit. The ordinances will most likely function like the six-week abortion ban, which attracted few cases but had a chilling effect.

Some legal scholars said the ordinances could run afoul of constitutional protections.

“Even Justice Kavanaugh, in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade, noted that a state would be violating the constitutional right to interstate travel if it sought to prohibit women from traveling out of state to seek a lawful abortion,” said Jeffrey Abramson, emeritus professor of government and law at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dickson said the ordinances are enforceable because they apply to someone assisting a pregnant woman with travel — including financial support — and do not prohibit a woman from driving herself or traveling by other means.

“We don’t see this as a travel ban,” he said. “We see this as a prohibition on abortion trafficking.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, Autumn Keiser, called the ordinances “unnecessary, confusing and fear-inducing barriers to essential health care.”

The Texas affiliates of Planned Parenthood, which have stopped providing abortions in the state, are also fighting a case brought by the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, that accuses the organization of defrauding the Medicaid program. That suit must go to trial, Matthew Kacsmaryk, a federal judge appointed by Donald Trump, ruled Monday. Texas is seeking nearly $2 billion.

That Lubbock County commissioners would adopt the travel ordinance — in a 3-0 vote — was not a surprise. Voters in the city of Lubbock approved a ban on abortions in 2021, shortly before the statewide six-week prohibition went into effect. On Monday, a steady stream of residents spoke in favor of the measure, often on religious grounds.

“I come to this from God’s side,” said Tonya Gilliam, who told the commissioners that she had an abortion nearly 50 years ago. “This is very dear to God. Life is everything.”

Other women voiced opposition to the ordinance, and support for abortion rights. “There are thousands of people out there who couldn’t come, because they have to work, and believe that a woman’s body is her decision,” said Charlotte Dunham, who told the commissioners that she believed abortion should be legal.

The county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he did not oppose the intent of the ordinance but abstained from the vote after saying he believed the ordinance, “as written, has many legal problems.”

Parrish also said that he wondered what impact the ordinance would really have, given that it only applied to the unincorporated portions of the county and not, for example, to the city of Lubbock. He said a person could still drive a pregnant woman to the airport in Lubbock for a flight to New Mexico for an abortion and not be in violation of the law.

Gilbert Flores, a county commissioner, also abstained from the vote. “I am 77 years old,” he said, describing times in his life when his rights were violated.

“Now, what’s in front of me right now is, do I have the right, do I have the power, do I want the authority to tell these women what to do, violate their rights?” he said. “I have a difficult time with that.”

Another commissioner, Terence Kovar, said he had once helped out in a crisis pregnancy center and that a vote for the ordinance would be in keeping with his anti-abortion views, and those of his constituents.

“This may be a way that mothers think about it,” he said in an interview. “Instead of driving all the way to New Mexico, they come and find one of the local places here to help them get through a troubling time and end up having the kid.”

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