The Amarillo City Council said it would not rush to put in place a rule prohibiting people from using city roads to seek an abortion. (Photo by Madison Walker for The Texas Tribune)
LUBBOCK — About 125 miles of empty roads, forgotten small towns and cattle ranches separate Lubbock from its northern counterpart, Amarillo. The two biggest cities in the Texas High Plains share some similarities — they’re both majority conservative, reside in the far flung parts of the state, and share a focus on reviving their downtown areas.
But they now have one striking difference: Lubbock County officials approved a legally dubious ban on people driving through their jurisdiction on the way out of the state to get an abortion. Amarillo city leaders did not — at least for now.
The fault line was exposed this week. On Monday, Lubbock County officials rushed to approve the ordinance, being pushed by the same organizers behind the “sanctuary city” movement that predated the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. But on Tuesday, the Amarillo City Council took a deep breath and said they would not follow other local governing bodies in approving the ban.
“We know what Lubbock County did, we know what Odessa did,” said Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley. “I’m not satisfied to come in and vote on something just because I’ve seen somebody else do it.”
The so-called travel ban takes the sanctuary ordinances a step further by outlawing the act of transporting a pregnant person on county roads for an abortion outside the state. It would be enforced through private lawsuits filed against the people who “aid and abet” abortions, not the pregnant woman. Experts say it’s an effort to further restrict abortion access in Texas.
“This is an effort, one by one by one, to create a statewide ban against travel to other states, literally creating a reproductive prison in the state of Texas,” Wendy Davis, a former state senator who is now a senior adviser at Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, previously told The Texas Tribune.
So far, four counties — Lubbock, Cochran, Mitchell and Goliad — have passed the travel bans. Odessa, with a population of nearly 117,000, and Little-River Academy, a small town of 2,200, have also passed similar policies.
The setback in Amarillo, the biggest city in the Texas Panhandle with 203,000 residents, stops the ordinance from reaching Interstates 40 and 27 in the city. It’s a blow to the anti-abortion movement that has largely gotten its way with the state’s conservative policy makers.
Lindsay London, co-founder of the Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance, said she is grateful the council is taking its time to review the ordinance, and that they are talking with residents about the issue.
“We want to make sure we maintain a seat at the table and that ideology doesn’t get in the way of good governance,” London said. “Ultimately, if it had to come to it, we would prefer a city-wide vote instead of a council vote.”
In an email to the Tribune, Mark Lee Dickson, director with Right to Life East Texas, said lawmakers from Texas and New Mexico have sent letters to Amarillo’s leaders in support of the issue. Dickson said there have been “mischaracterizations” of the ordinance by the council they need to address.
“Then they will recognize the value of considering and voting on the proposed abortion trafficking ordinance in its current form or with slight modifications,” he said.
In Lubbock on Monday, three county commissioners approved the ordinance after receiving it from Dickson’s group less than a week before the vote. When Commissioner Gilbert Flores and Judge Curtis Parrish asked for more time to review it or make potential amendments, Commissioner Jason Corley pushed the issue to a vote and said amendments could be made later.
The next day in Amarillo, members of the city council didn’t reject the sentiment of the ordinance, but largely agreed they needed more time to review it after receiving the document a week ago.
Substance is more important than symbolism, Stanley said.
“I don’t care to put forward a resolution that’s just symbolic and makes us feel good,” he said.
Council member Tom Scherlen said he could not support the ordinance as it was presented. His main concern came with the enforcement, and how he did not like the idea of turning neighbor against neighbor.
“I don’t believe in that at all. That takes me back to World War II and what the Nazis did,” Scherlen said, referencing how Nazis enforced laws that punished anyone who provided refuge to Jewish people and encouraged neighbors to turn each other in for violating those laws.
The council heard from residents — some of whom were worried the ordinance was meant to divide the community — and outsiders from New Mexico and other areas of Texas. One Amarillo resident, Keely Wilson, expressed concern that the ordinance would scare people away from the city.
“It cannot be overstated how vital interstate commerce is for the Amarillo economy,” Wilson said. “If people believe they can be targeted, harassed, investigated or sued by Amarillo residents, they will be much less likely to drive through or stop here.”
Logan Brown, a New Mexico resident who traveled to Amarillo to encourage the council to adopt the ban, argued that abortion is “never medically necessary,” a falsehood reproductive health physicians have contradicted. Brown pushed the council to pass the ordinance that night.
“Don’t kick it down the road, don’t give it to a public vote,” Brown said. “The citizens of Amarillo elected you to represent them and to protect those citizens.”
The discussion between the council members was another difference from the meeting in Lubbock, where tempers flared among commissioners debating the ordinance before a rushed vote that left some in the audience feeling misled.
“I was there yesterday, and they told us they weren’t going to vote on it and just when we left the room, they changed their minds,” said Charlotte Dunham, a Lubbock resident who opposes the ordinance. “The contrast between the way you’re treating your citizens and the way we were treated is huge.”
As the seven-hour meeting — which included another lively discussion topic that drew residents to city hall, the city’s animal shelter — came to a close, the mayor promised more thoughtful debate.
“You’ll see this on the rolling agenda, this is not going to surprise anyone,” Stanley said. “We’re going to continue to walk this out. We got all the way out here, we’re not going to turn around and go back.”
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