CARTHAGE — Three Texas towns — including one in East Texas — recently voted in favor of anti-abortion ordinances, extending the reach of a campaign to create “sanctuary cities for the unborn” across the state. And a fourth East Texas town will vote on whether to join the list tonight.
Meanwhile, the Carthage City Commission still is debating whether to allow the issue on its agenda.
The city councils of Big Spring and Colorado City — with populations around 28,000 and 4,000, respectively — voted Tuesday for a version of the controversial ordinance that started popping up in small towns in East Texas last year.
The ordinance aims to outlaw abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court makes it possible to do so. It also grants family members of women who have abortions the ability to sue the provider for emotional distress.
Big Spring’s vote was tentative; a majority of City Council members will need to vote once more in favor of the ordinance for it to pass.
Colorado City’s vote, which also banned the sale of emergency contraception such as Plan B, was final, making it the eighth local government with such an ordinance in effect, according to the anti-abortion group pushing them.
The city of Rusk in Cherokee County approved a similar ordinance last week.
They join Waskom, which forged the trail in June, followed by Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Gilmer and Westbrook.
The Gary City Council will vote on the issue at its meeting tonight, set for 6 p.m. at Gary City Hall, 2607 FM 999 in Gary in Panola County.
Gary officials previously had scheduled a vote in December, but pushed it to their January meeting because they didn’t have a quorum of members present in December.
The ordinances are of contested legality and enforceability. The American Civil Liberties Union has said it is investigating a possible lawsuit seeking to strike them down.
Three towns — Mineral Wells, Omaha and Jacksboro — have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.
But that hasn’t discouraged Longview pastor Mark Lee Dickson, the traveling anti-abortion activist who hopes to galvanize a statewide movement and perhaps provoke a lawsuit that could change abortion law nationwide.
“We have every intention of targeting every part of the state,” said Dickson, who said he is traveling to Levelland this week in hopes of persuading the town west of Lubbock to adopt a similar ordinance. “Every city, no matter what size, is valuable.”
In the city of Carthage, the proposed citywide ban on abortion was again subject of heated public comments at Monday’s City Commission meeting — but city officials so far have not placed the ordinance on an agenda for a vote. The topic also was discussed at the commission’s December meeting.
Supporters have started gathering petition signatures to force a vote, with organizers Monday saying the proposed ordinance had wide support from the community.
“Carthage has the opportunity to stand up and say ‘We do not want or accept abortion,’” said Amy Blackwell of East Texas Right to Life. “It doesn’t mean that we’re shaming people. It’s saying that Carthage, here, that we do value life, and the most valuable of all, I believe — the most pure — are the unborn.”
Carthage commissioners on Monday listened to several public comments for and against the proposed ordinance, including former Assistant District Attorney Katie Nielsen — who said Roe v. Wade was argued on junk science — and Kamyon Conner, executive director of the Texas Equal Access abortion fund — who called it an extreme measure that would infringe on the right to abortion, as well as freedom of association and freedom of speech for those organizations who advocate for abortion access.
“No matter what your personal views on abortion are, we should all respect that the decision is each person’s to make with their family and in accordance to their faith,” Conner said. “It is not our place to judge someone who decides to not become a parent. Government officials should focus on expanding care and not limiting care. We know that this ordinance is meant to confuse and shame folks into thinking abortion is not legal or accessible, but rest assured we will be here to support the people of Carthage in accessing abortion if they so choose.”
Nielsen called abortion a barbaric procedure. She also told commissioners she would be happy to break down the decision and show its legal faults at their next meeting.
“If Roe v. Wade were in front of the Supreme Court today just going on the legalities of it and the science behind it, it couldn’t pass today,” she said. “It’s one of the worst-written opinions ever.”
Nicole Tarpley, the Panola County Republican chairwoman, encouraged commissioners to pass the ordinance, noting Panola County overall was a heavily Republican area. Tarpley said she’s heard a lot of support for the ordinance in talking to residents.
“I ask that you stand up for life and respect the constituents that are Republican, the majority, in Carthage, Texas,” she said.
Jessica Hale, who spoke at the December meeting against the ordinance, reminded commissioners Monday that banning abortion was unconstitutional. She noted the ACLU already has threatened legal action against cities who have adopted the ordinance.
“Is Carthage financially capable of taking on a national issue?” she said. “No matter the way we view it, abortion is normal and common. This ban does not stop abortions in any way, even more so because there’s no abortion center planning on settling in Carthage. All this ban will do is confuse individuals regarding their rights and their decisions they are allowed to make for their own financial future and physical and emotional well-being.”
Abortion rights advocates say the local ordinances are dangerous and intentionally confusing because they may lead people to believe, falsely, that abortion is illegal.
The strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even the staunchest anti-abortion activists. Some groups, including the Texas Alliance for Life, have warned against taking an inflammatory approach that is unlikely to survive a legal contest and could set the anti-abortion movement back in court.
Most provisions of the ordinance would not take effect unless the U.S. Supreme Court issues a new opinion on the legality of abortion. Specifically, the high court would need to overrule its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, a case that originated in Texas and led to the legalization of abortion nationwide by nullifying state laws that banned the procedure.
And the court would need to reverse its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allowed states to enact abortion restrictions only if they do not place an “undue burden” on a woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy.
But the ordinances, which do not make exceptions for rape or incest, immediately allow “any surviving relative of the aborted unborn child” to sue a person in civil court for performing an abortion within the towns where they were passed. In some towns, a person could also be sued for transporting a woman to an abortion clinic or helping pay for the procedure, though local officials have said that language is largely symbolic and would be difficult to enforce.
None of the “sanctuary cities for the unborn” is home to an abortion clinic, and the number of clinics in Texas has plummeted in recent years thanks to increasing restrictions on abortion rights imposed by the Texas Legislature.