The American Civil Liberties Union is suing seven Texas towns in federal court over recent anti-abortion ordinances declaring the towns "sanctuary cities for the unborn."
The controversial ordinances began popping up in small towns in East Texas last year and gradually spread across the state. Eleven towns, extending as far west as Big Spring, had passed a version of the ordinance. It aims to outlaw abortion at the local level if the U.S. Supreme Court makes it possible to do so, and it grants family members of women who have abortions the ability to sue the provider for emotional distress. Some towns also included language to ban the sale of emergency contraception such as Plan B.
"The ordinances’ existence misleads residents of these cities as to whether individuals can in fact exercise their right to access abortion," civil liberties lawyers representing the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, which help women afford abortions, wrote in a court filing. Some towns included language in their ordinances labeling the groups "criminal organizations."
The strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even the staunchest anti-abortion activists. Some groups 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. And several towns — including Mineral Wells, Omaha and Jacksboro — have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.
But other conservative activists have traveled across the state, urging city councils to pass versions of the ordinance.
"These communities have shown great courage in standing up against the abortion industry," Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, said in a statement.
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.
The lawsuit claims the ordinances are discriminatory against reproductive rights activists. "Their prohibition of speech and association applies only to those with a pro-choice viewpoint," the lawsuit says. "Organizations with an anti-abortion viewpoint, such as the one that promoted the ordinances, may operate and speak freely about their anti-abortion views within these cities."
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