Downtown Lubbock on July 6, 2023. (Photo by Trace Thomas for The Texas Tribune)
LUBBOCK — Three county commissioners approved an ordinance Monday that would bar pregnant Texas women from traveling through the unincorporated area of Lubbock County for an abortion in another state.
The commissioners – Jason Corley, Terence Kovar and Jordan Rackler – voted for the ordinance, which can only be enforced by private citizens who file lawsuits against people assisting pregnant Texans seeking an abortion. Commissioner Gilbert Flores, and County Judge Curtis Parrish abstained from voting.
Lubbock County is now the largest county to weigh in on the policy pushed by anti-abortion activists. It joins three other rural counties — Goliad, Mitchell and Cochran — in Texas that have already passed similar ordinances, despite the state already having one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the U.S.
The ordinance is being pushed by the same organizers who started the “sanctuary city” ordinance movement before Roe v. Wade was eventually overturned. In 2021, Lubbock, the county seat, was the largest city to pass a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance.
Much like that ordinance, the travel ban would be enforced through private lawsuits filed against the people who “knowingly transport any individual for the purpose of providing or obtaining an elective abortion, regardless of where the elective abortion will occur.” It would not punish the pregnant woman.
Parrish, the county judge, wanted to postpone a vote until March 2024, to give the commissioner’s court more time to look at the legal purpose of the ordinance and what the physical impact would be to the county and taxpayers.
“We are a pro-life county, but we shouldn’t need a piece of paper that says you can’t drive on our roads,” Parrish said.
Legal scholars have said these so-called “abortion travel bans” have questionable enforcement mechanisms, making them more like a ceremonial declaration than a legally binding statute. In an opinion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote “May a state bar a resident of that state from traveling to another state to obtain an abortion? In my view, the answer is no based on the constitutional right to interstate travel.”
More than 100 people attended the commissioners court meeting, where there was tense back-and-forth between the elected representatives.
Commissioner Corley questioned whether his fellow commissioner, Flores, read the ordinance that was given to them last Wednesday. Corley and Parrish, who appeared to support the sentiment of the ordinance but wanted more time to look it over, also disagreed about when a vote can take place.
Anti-abortion activists from New Mexico and other parts of Texas have framed the ordinance as something to prevent “abortion trafficking,” with one meeting attendee implying to commissioners that pregnant women were being “transported” to other states against their will.
The idea of abortion trafficking is one that is also being spread by some Texas lawmakers. In an August letter addressed to Texas city and county officials, signed by members of the Texas Legislature, including Lubbock state Reps. Dustin Burrows and Carl Tepper, and state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, lawmakers claim that women are being abused and traumatized by “abortion trafficking.” The letter gives no specific examples of such trafficking.
Before the vote, Neal Burt, civil chief for the Lubbock County District Attorney’s office, asked commissioners for additional time to look over the ordinance. He expressed concern about the language and recommended amendments to it, as the county was already embroiled in a federal lawsuit in which his boss, District Attorney Sunshine Stanek was named, along with several other county attorneys. In that suit, abortion rights organizations are seeking legal protection to continue fundraising and paying for out-of-state abortion expenses.
“Words matter when we’re looking at criminal laws, as we are in that case, and the enforcement,” Burt explained.
However, Corley moved forward with a vote.
Commissioner Flores — the oldest member of the court at 77 years old — explained his civil rights were violated in the 1950s and 1960s, and how he doesn’t want to put women in a similar position by enacting the ordinance.
“Do I want the authority to tell women what to do and violate their rights? I have a difficult time with that,” said Flores, who also said it would go against his oath of office. “I have to obey the constitution of the United States of America, and I have to respect women’s rights.”
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