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Texas bill aims to block wave of local abortion travel bans

A Texas state senator is seeking to block a wave of local anti-abortion measures — in particular, a rising number of bans that seek to bar women seeking an out-of-state procedure from traveling through specific counties.
State Sen. Nate Johnson (D) introduced a bill that would prohibit such bans Monday on the heels of a Republican-led push to subordinate local authority to the state Legislature on a wide range of local issues.
The new bill would ban municipalities or counties from adopting or enforcing any ordinance that “prohibits the travel of a person through the municipality or county because of the purpose for such travel.”
“I generally give strong deference to local authority on matters of local governance. But this is not about local governance,” Johnson said.
Instead, he argued, “this is a flagrant infringement upon the constitutional right to interstate travel. It’s a pernicious Big Government acting at the local level.”
“For the benefit of all citizens, the state has an obligation to stop it,” he added.
Measures prohibiting travel for abortion have passed in several rural counties and small cities in Texas as an extension of the “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” movement, which now counts 47 cities as signatories, most in a wide belt across the northern part of the state.
In late October, the county that contains the northwest Texas college town of Lubbock voted to bar women seeking an abortion in New Mexico from traversing the area, according to The Texas Tribune.
It’s unclear how such a ban would be practically enforced. A broader state anti-abortion statute that passed in 2021 made it illegal for Texas doctors to provide an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually takes place around six weeks of pregnancy.
Under state statute, doctors who provide an abortion face first-degree felony charges — a legal category that includes murder — the loss of their medical licenses and up to $100,000 in civil fines.
But the law did not make it illegal for Texans to obtain abortions. Instead, pregnant women are explicitly excluded from enforcement, whether civil or criminal: State statute explicitly bars any “liability or penalties on a pregnant female on whom an abortion is performed, induced, or attempted.”
The Lubbock abortion travel ban exposes those who travel through the county with women seeking the procedure to the possibility of being sued by private citizens, who could then collect the fine — though it imposes no legal consequences on the women themselves.
The local bans and the legislative attempt to halt them are part of a broader Texas fight over abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which ended nearly 50-year-old federal protections for the procedure, though state initiatives had already rendered it effectively out of reach across much of the country.
Later this month, the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding a bitter legal dispute over whether doctors in the state can legally provide abortions for women who experience serious pregnancy complications.
A federal judge in July determined doctors could perform abortions in such cases, but an appeal by the Texas attorney general’s office blocked that ruling.
Among Texans themselves, abortion rights have garnered broad popular support this year. In April 2023, a poll found that 58 percent of Texans said it was important for the state Legislature to expand legal access to abortion, compared with 37 percent who found it unimportant.
During the state legislative session taking place at that time, the Legislature passed House Bill 3058, which exempted doctors from penalties if they performed abortions to resolve two potentially life-threatening complications, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Legislature declined to take up exceptions to the state ban on abortions that would allow the procedure in cases of rape or incest, however.
After the session, a June poll found that 45 percent of Texans disapproved of the Legislature’s record on abortion, compared with 38 percent who approved of it.
Measures protecting abortion passed by broad margins earlier this month in states even more conservative than Texas, such as Ohio. But getting a referendum on abortion onto the ballot in Texas would require the conservative Legislature to sign on, as The Texas Observer reported.
Local abortion travel bans have been controversial, even on the right. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued in a concurring opinion to the court’s Dobbs decision that such bans were unconstitutional.
“For example, 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,” he wrote.
The legal issues at play seemed to give pause to Lubbock County’s judge — the chief executive of a Texas county.
“We are a pro-life county, but we shouldn’t need a piece of paper that says you can’t drive on our roads,” Judge Curtis Parrish (R) said in a council meeting, explaining why he wanted the measure postponed.
Parrish abstained from the subsequent county commissioners’ vote, in which the measure was passed, although it only applies to parts of the county not administered by the city of Lubbock, which has no such ban.
The similarly conservative city of Amarillo, two hours’ drive straight north, has so far declined to pass a similar measure — despite widespread anti-abortion sentiment on the council.
“There are several other cities that have adopted this, and good for them, but what we want to do is what’s best for y’all,” said Amarillo councilmember Don Tipps at a vote held the day after the Lubbock ban passed, as reported by the Tribune.
The measure would have exposed to hefty legal fines anyone who helped a woman travel through the county to get an abortion — even during the first six weeks after conception, when even Texas’s strict post-2021 abortion ban allows the procedure.
That increased restriction was a major benefit to the proposed bill, said Mark Lee Dickson of Right to Life East Texas — an organization based on the other side of the state that sent activists to Amarillo for last month’s hearing.
Dickson argued that driving a pregnant woman across the county to obtain an abortion was akin to being the getaway driver in a bank robbery.
“We are not interfering with the right to travel; a woman can still drive to New Mexico for an abortion,” Dickson said at the time. “What it does not allow is for anyone to assist her in that act.”
The city council was not convinced, however, and voted down the measure — joining cities such as Chandler in conservative East Texas, which in September voted down an abortion travel ban on the grounds that it was unenforceable by local officials.

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