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Despite pressure, Amarillo City Council punts on abortion travel ban petition


Despite pressure, Amarillo City Council punts on abortion travel ban petition

May 28, 2024 | 11:42 pm ET
By Jayme Lozano Carver
Despite pressure, Amarillo City Council punts on abortion travel ban petition
Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley, left, and Council member Tom Scherlen listen to testimony during a City Council meeting Tuesday. Residents gave testimony and arguments to members of the city council as they discussed a proposed abortion travel ban in Amarillo. (Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — The Amarillo City Council on Tuesday declined to immediately approve a voter-approved petition that demands the Texas Panhandle city adopt a so-called abortion travel ban, once again slowing a movement that has swept through similar conservative cities and counties.

The council now has less than a month to decide whether to accept, amend, or reject the petition supported by anti-abortion activists. If the council ultimately rejects the petition or heavily amends it, supporters are expected to ask voters to have the final say in November.

The council also discussed adopting another policy that echoed 2021’s Senate Bill 8, also known as The Heartbeat Act, which prohibits abortion after six weeks from the patient’s last period. Doing so would “close the loopholes” and define “unborn child” as beginning at the time of conception, said Mayor Cole Stanley.

After several hours of public comment and deliberations with the group behind the petition, the council decided not to take action on either policy proposal. They scheduled a public hearing for June 11 to discuss amending the ordinance again.

As presented to council, the abortion travel ban effectively makes it illegal to help a person access an abortion outside the state using local roads and highways. Legal scholars and abortion supporters have argued the policy is unconstitutional.

The council discussed possible amendments to the ordinance with a committee that supported the petition, including residents Jana May, John Barrett, and Steve Austin. Council member Don Tipps asked if there could be an exception for parents and grandparents from punishment if they violate the law. The committee said no.

[Why a Texas Panhandle city hit pause on a proposed abortion “travel ban” — for now]

The lengthy saga between City Council and advocates for and against abortion access began last October, when the council first took up the matter. Then, they were considering an 18-page ordinance which included the proposed travel ban. That ordinance also prohibited abortion in Amarillo, despite Texas already having one of the strictest abortion bans in the U.S.

The council did not approve the policy then, breaking from a trend of other conservative municipalities and counties that passed the policies with little debate. In December, a group of Amarillo residents began circulating the petition after the council signaled it was willing to pass a revised version of the policy that did not include a travel ban.

The legally dubious travel ban is a must for anti-abortion activists. With more than 203,000 residents, Amarillo is the largest city in the heart of the Texas Panhandle. Interstates 40 and 27 run through the city, both of which connect small towns surrounding Amarillo to the rest of the state, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Opponents to the proposal have expressed concern that it could scare people away from the city and harm interstate commerce.

Stanley on Tuesday said the council wanted to remove the roadway aspect of the ordinance, rewrite the section with the title about prohibiting abortion trafficking, and use state language for the law as part of their amendments. He called the enforcement a weak point of the policy and wants to remove that part too. The committee said they would need to discuss amendments with their legal team.

Robin Gantz, a retired minister in Amarillo, told the council she believes in the sanctity of life. However, she’s concerned the ordinance could isolate pregnant women from their loved ones during an emotional time in their life.

“This prevents someone from offering basic human kindness, comfort, and aid at a terrible time,” Gantz said.

Gantz also said the enforcement mechanism suggests a “vigilante mentality” and may allow lawsuits for financial gain.

May, who helped lead the petition initiative, encouraged the council to pass the ordinance and think of the children. She said in these scenarios, people only hear about the women and their choice.

“We never hear anything about the baby,” May said.

The original ordinance does not call for pregnant women to be punished for having an abortion out of state. Instead, anyone who “aids and abet” the procedure would be vulnerable to a private lawsuit from other citizens. This is the only enforcement mechanism for the ordinance, and it is similar to the 2021 bill banning almost all abortions. Some have criticized it as turning neighbor against neighbor for reward money.

Anti-abortion legal crusader Jonathan Mitchell, who helped design the 2021 bill, is working with activists pushing the travel ban on municipal levels. He has filed legal petitions seeking to depose women he claims traveled out of state for abortions.

Other cities and counties in Texas have passed ordinances to prohibit traveling through their jurisdictions for an abortion outside the state. This includes the cities of Athens, Abilene, Plainview, San Angelo, Odessa, Muenster and Little River-Academy, and Mitchell, Goliad, Lubbock, Dawson, Cochran and Jack counties.

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