Texas City Holds Third, Chaotic Meeting on Whether-Slash-How to Ban Abortion Travel

Though public comment wasn't permitted, hordes of concerned citizens showed up, forcing the council meeting to take place in the city civic center.

Texas City Holds Third, Chaotic Meeting on Whether-Slash-How to Ban Abortion Travel
Photo:Jim Steinfeldt (Getty Images)

This week, the city council representing Amarillo, Texas, hosted its third, hours-long meeting on the same issue: whether—and how—to enact an abortion travel ban. (Mind you, Texas already bans abortion and threatens abortion providers with life in prison.) The ordinance would be similar to what we’ve seen several counties in Texas pass over the last few months—and would outlaw anyone from using roads that pass through the county’s jurisdiction if they’re traveling to get an abortion. So far, Cochran, Mitchell, Goliad, and, most recently, Lubbock, have adopted these ordinances, which are designed to be enforced by civil lawsuits—similar to the state’s SB 8 ban, enacted in 2021, which lets people sue any Texan who helps someone have an abortion for at least $10,000. Notably, the city of Amarillo itself has a population of 200,000, compared to, say, Cochran County’s 2,500.

On Tuesday, the Texas Tribune reports that Amarillo’s five, all-male council members convened to debate three different drafts of the abortion travel ban ordinance. The meetings are typically held at the council’s headquarters, but due to an onslaught of concerned citizens, this week’s meeting took place at the city civic center to “accommodate the crowd,” per the Tribune. The crowd came even though the meeting didn’t allow public comment.

An ordinance like this has serious implications in a city like Amarillo: Two major highways run through the city, and the Tribune notes that this measure could theoretically block access to New Mexico and Colorado, two key destinations for Texas residents seeking an abortion. In New Mexico, 57% of Planned Parenthood patients come from Texas.

The aforementioned counties in Texas rushed to enact these ordinances between August and October. But Amarillo has certainly been taking its time after first introducing the idea in October. According to the Guardian, the council opened this week’s meeting with a prayer and “an hour-long presentation by an anti-abortion doctor from Florida.” Council members debated local government’s role in protecting “life,” how to further protect “life,” how to stop abortion trafficking (which is really just Republicans’ fearmongering term for abortion-related travel), and how to impede access to abortion pills.

Ultimately, the council didn’t land anywhere, and one member expressed reservations about how a municipal abortion travel ban could impact business: “We’re not in grade school. You can’t just go regulating business,” council member Tom Scherlen said. “You’re trying to overreach government wholeheartedly here.” Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley said the council should take its time thoroughly considering an ordinance like this, “with our citizens in mind first, not what’s popular.” But I don’t know how any permutation of an abortion travel ban could ever prioritize citizen well-being, nor how hours of needless debate about a fascist, probably unenforceable policy to surveil and punish pregnant people promotes citizen well-being, either.

Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Texas Right to Life who helped craft the original abortion travel ban ordinances, told Rolling Stone in September, “We’re just looking at every way to close off any loophole imaginable.” Reuters reported in October that anti-abortion activists reason these measures function to “bolster Texas’ existing abortion ban.” And yet, the enforceability of these measures is questionable at best. As one Mitchell County official—who voted for the travel ban ordinance—told Rolling Stone: “Unless they’ve got a billboard on top of the car, who’s gonna know they’re going somewhere to get an abortion? It’s unenforceable. We don’t even have enough law enforcement here to take care of the business here in Mitchell County.”

Ahead of the Tuesday meeting in Amarillo, Lindsay London, a local activist who works with the Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance, told the Guardian that local jurisdictions taking “an additional stand” against abortion when Texas already bans it is “redundant,” but said it’s “really scary” they’re trying this hard: “It’s five white men who are staunchly anti-abortion in our leadership,” London said. “It’s kind of grim.”

Across the country, legislation to police abortion-related travel is on the rise. Idaho became the first state to restrict abortion-related travel by making it a crime to help minors leave the state for care. (That law was temporarily blocked last month.) Alabama’s attorney general recently characterized helping people travel for abortion as a “criminal conspiracy.”

Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel at the reproductive justice legal group If/When/How, told Jezebel in October that of the numerous cases of pregnancy and abortion-related criminalization she’s worked on or reviewed, she’s “never seen prosecutors use evidence pertaining to individuals’ interstate or highway travel,” which is difficult if not impossible to collect. But potential enforcement of these measures is just one small piece of what makes them dangerous: “The exact point” of these policies is “chaos and confusion.” She continued, “If not even trained lawyers can parse this, how are people who are just trying to figure out what their options are, how they can support their loved ones, supposed to get any of this?”

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