The “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” initiative is a growing group of towns that have banned abortion in city limits with local ordinances. Versions of the ordinance have evolved as the initiative has notched more cities, but one constant has remained: using civil lawsuits to enforce the ban. The “clever” legal craftsmanship, as one lawyer described it, has invited lawsuits but proven effective.
Like most towns in the initiative, Leona has no abortion facilities in city limits. It is the smallest town to join the initiative so far, and its city council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance.
Bishop Joseph Strickland, a vocal supporter of the initiative whose diocese includes Leona, lauded the vote.
“It is my prayer that every community in East Texas and beyond will join this grassroots effort to protect the unborn. Let’s make the USA a pro-life nation even if we have to do it one city at a time,” Strickland stated.
Strickland’s “one city at a time” vision reflects the guiding strategy of initiative founder Mark Lee Dickson, who has lately framed the project as an answer to President Joe Biden’s commitment to abortion access regardless of zip code but has also presented the ordinance personally to every city that’s joined since Waskom became the first in 2019.
The 32nd “Sanctuary” in Texas, Leona was the second town to adopt the ordinance this month. It follows Eastland, where the adoption process required two votes. The Eastland city council had already decided unanimously to approve the ordinance before they officially adopted it on August 4.
Crawford was the third town to adopt it this month and the 33rd in Texas. Like Leona and Eastland, the Crawford City Council adopted the ban unanimously. Since most of the towns have tended to congregate in East Texas and the Permian Basin, Crawford is the closest “Sanctuary” to Interstate 35.
There are some slight variations between the three towns’ ordinances.
Towns that join the initiative have turned a gradually more focused eye towards chemical abortions, also called remote abortions. The 19th town made it illegal to give instructions for remote abortions under the section that prohibits “aiding or abetting an abortion.” The 29th town outlawed abortion-inducing drugs entirely.
Eastland’s ordinance outlaws aiding and abetting abortions, including giving abortion instructions, but it does not specifically make abortifacient drugs contraband. The other two towns do outlaw these drugs, such as mifepristone.
Over time, the ordinance has also evolved to beef up the public enforcement mechanism and expand the liability in the private enforcement mechanism.
Originally, the ordinance only allowed the living kin of aborted children to sue their abortionists. More current versions of the ordinance allow any Texan citizen to sue.
To comply with court rulings, the ordinance also allows the city to impose penalties on violators if they meet certain thresholds. The cities cannot punish violators “unless and until” the Supreme Court overturns binding abortion jurisprudence like Roe v. Wade, a court declares that the city’s penalty will not unduly burden women seeking abortions, or a court rules that the violator lacks third-party standing to assert the rights of women seeking abortions in court.
Women who obtain abortions cannot be sued under the ordinances. They can participate in suits against violators.
The ordinances make an exception for abortions meant to save the mother from death or disability.
The “Sanctuary Cities” initiative has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with state law. The “findings” section of each city’s ordinance notes that Texas has not repealed certain laws against abortion even though court rulings prevent officials from enforcing them. After the Texas legislature passed the Heartbeat Act, which bans abortions after a detectable pulse, cities rolled it into their findings section since it specifically includes a line acknowledging the legal power of cities to restrict abortion at the local level.
The day before Governor Greg Abbott signed the Heartbeat Act, Planned Parenthood sued Lubbock in federal court after it adopted the ordinance and became the first “sanctuary” with a working abortion clinic in city limits. Planned Parenthood quickly lost since, as the judge ruled, appellate jurisprudence prevented the court from taking up the case. The ruling says passage of the Heartbeat Act helped persuade the order of dismissal.
Now, the Heartbeat Act is under lawsuit as well, and Dickson is using the Lubbock lawsuit for ammunition. Dickson, the only citizen defendant named in the suit, referred to the Lubbock ruling in his motion to dismiss.
“Earlier this year, when the city of Lubbock enacted a local abortion ban that authorized private civil-enforcement lawsuits, the city’s sole abortion clinic chose to comply with city law rather than risk the lawsuits authorized by the ordinance,” Dickson brief reads.
“Mr. Dickson expects the plaintiffs to respond in a similar manner when Senate Bill 8 takes effect.”
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