In Texas, local laws to prevent abortion travel are gaining momentum

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

On Monday, Lubbock County, a conservative heartland of more than 300,000 near the New Mexico border, became the largest county not yet adopted such prohibition. The county commissioners court, during a public meeting that at times provoked impassioned testimony, voted to prohibit anyone from transporting a pregnant woman through the county, or paying for her travel, for the purpose of seeking an abortion.

The district, which includes the city of Lubbock and Texas Tech University, joined three other far smaller districts — one along the New Mexico border and two in the middle of the state — in passing ordinances partly crafted by the architect of Texas’ six-week abortion ban, passed in 2021 even before than the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

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

“These abortion trafficking ordinances are really the next phase 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 expects several more counties to adopt similar measures in the next few months.

The orders were drafted by Mr. Dickson and Jonathan F. Mitchell, the former Texas attorney general who crafted the state’s 2021 abortion ban, and rely on the same enforcement mechanism as the abortion ban: lawsuits from private citizens. They specifically prohibit the police, sheriffs or other county officials or employees from enforcing the ban — a way to avoid immediate litigation and a possible injunction.

Practically speaking, someone would have to find out about the person helping the pregnant woman travel out of state for the procedure in order to file a lawsuit. The orders are most likely to function like a six-week abortion ban, which has attracted few cases but had a chilling effect.

Some legal experts say the ordinances could run afoul of constitutional protections.

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

Mr Dickson said the regulations were enforceable because they applied to someone helping a pregnant woman travel – including financial support – and did not prohibit the woman from driving or otherwise traveling alone.

“We don’t see this as a travel ban,” he said. “We see this as banning the abortion trade.”

U statementPlanned Parenthood of Greater Texas spokeswoman Autumn Keiser called the regulations “unnecessary, confusing and fear-mongering barriers to essential health care.”

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

It was no surprise that Lubbock County commissioners would pass the travel ordinance — by a 3-0 vote. Voters in the city of Lubbock approved an abortion ban in 2021, shortly before a six-week statewide ban took effect. On Monday, a steady number of residents spoke in support of the measure, often on religious grounds.

“I’m coming to this from God’s side,” said Tonya Gilliam, who told commissioners she had an abortion nearly 50 years ago. “This pleases God. Life is everything.”

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

District Judge Curtis Parrish said he did not oppose the intent of the ordinance, but abstained from voting after saying he believed the ordinance “as written has a lot of legal problems.”

Mr. Parrish also said he wondered what effect the ordinance would really have, given that it only applied to unincorporated parts of the county and not, for example, the city of Lubbock. He said a person can still drive a pregnant woman to the Lubbock airport for a flight to New Mexico for an abortion and not break the law.

Gilbert Flores, a county commissioner, also abstained from voting. “I’m 77 years old,” he said, describing moments 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, to violate their rights?” he said. “I’m having a hard time with that.”

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

“This may be the way 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 the rough weather and end up having a baby.”

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