Anti-Abortion Lawmakers Want to Create 'Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn'

Multiple cities have introduced ordinances banning abortion—but they can't be enforced.
Members of the Omaha, Texas, city council voting on an anti-abortion ordinance.

Update 9/11/19: Two more cities in Texas—Omaha and Naples—have passed ordinances banning abortion, declaring themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn." They're the second and third in the country to do so, after Waskom, Texas.

This week, a small city in north Texas became the second in the state to introduce a city-wide ordinance banning abortion, even though there are no clinics in the town. The mayor of Mineral Wells said he was inspired by the all-male city council in Waskom, which in June unanimously passed a similar ordinance. The lawmakers said the measure would turn Waskom into a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” riffing on the term used to describe jurisdictions that protect undocumented residents from federal immigration authorities.


The Waskom statute also bans helping other people obtain abortions and the sale of emergency contraception, but includes exceptions for rape, incest, and for risks to the pregnant person’s life. Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone told a local ABC affiliate he wanted to replicate the ordinance—but with those exceptions removed.

“I was like, 'Oh my goodness, that’s incredible,” Perricone said, referring to a conversation he had with a friend about the Waskom ordinance. (Perricone’s office did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.) The ordinance, which proposed a ban on abortion and a criminalization of providers, was voted down at the Mineral Wells City Council meeting Tuesday night in a 5-2 vote.

With Roe v. Wade still in effect, the measure—like its equivalent in Waskom—would have been unenforceable. Yet the city-wide statutes have been cropping up in conservative patches of states like New Mexico, North Carolina, and Utah since March as a way for the anti-abortion movement to score easy "wins" while state-level abortion bans are tied up in lengthy court battles. And while the resolutions may be legally impotent for now, pro-choice activists say they are effective in at least one way: misleading people about whether they can access abortion care.

“These ordinances cause confusion and intimidation because it’s hard for many people to tell what laws are in effect,” said Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “That’s what their aim is.”


The anti-abortion groups pushing the Texas bans don’t refute this characterization. Rebecca Parma, a legislative associate at Texas Right to Life, said the organization is encouraging city councils across the state to pursue anti-abortion ordinances as a method of discouraging residents from seeking out the procedure.

Parma said Texas Right to Life was disappointed with the outcome of this past state legislative session, which saw just one anti-abortion bill signed into law. Since the Texas state legislature only meets every two years, Parma sees the next year and a half as an opportunity to advance an anti-abortion agenda on the local level.

“Even though the ordinances can’t be enforced until federal law is changed, they serve as a deterrent,” Parma said. “They say, You can get an abortion now, but one day when this is overturned you can be prosecuted.”

Local abortion rights organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Texas Equal Access Fund, and Lilith Fund are joining forces to combat this messaging. In June, after the passage of Waskom’s abortion ban, the groups purchased two highway billboards, both of which declare “Abortion is Freedom.” The signs direct Waskom residents to the website, which provides Texans with information about nearby abortion providers and connects them with abortion funds to help close financial barriers to the procedure.

These organizations are also preparing for this new conservative tactic to spread throughout Texas. Pro-choice leaders say they expect such bans to gain traction primarily among smaller, more rural cities, which already lack abortion clinics and have made abortion care difficult to access. (Parma said Texas Right to Life is currently in talks with other cities looking to pass their own ordinances, but wouldn’t say which.)


“States typically model legislation after one another, and there are a lot of examples of that, especially in the South,” said Amanda Williams, the executive director of Lilith Fund. “They’re taking the same big-picture strategy to the local level.”

Williams said the new attacks have inspired Lilith Fund and its partners to direct more energy and resources toward Repro Power Texas, an initiative that focuses on building pro-choice momentum city by city and helped pass a 2017 measure affirming abortion rights in Austin. And Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, said she and her staff plan to lobby lawmakers in cities they believe could be considering ordinances similar to Waskom’s and Mineral Wells’, and to provide “know your rights” trainings in rural areas of the state.

Since the city-level anti-abortion ordinances first took off outside of Texas, it’s possible more will take root in other states, particularly as conservative state lawmakers continue to pass extreme legislation. Williams said the trend is all the more reason for pro-choice organizations not to neglect local organizing as they fight state and federal battles.

“This has added fuel to our fire,” Williams said of the recent ordinances. “We have the momentum and now we really have to run with it.”

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