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AMARILLO — The Amarillo City Council prolonged its debate over a so-called abortion travel ban on Tuesday, spending more than two hours in front of a packed room reviewing draft rules that would attempt to block access to Colorado and New Mexico, two states where a Texas woman could legally obtain an abortion.
The five-member council discussed three different drafts of the ordinance, with varying measures in each, and left the table without resolution. Abortion rights activists and legal scholars have sharply criticized the ordinances, calling the rules unconstitutional.
The meeting offered a rare window into how a local government wades into one of America's thorniest and most politically charged issues. The council — which includes no women — governs a city of more than 200,000 people and has bucked the trend of other smaller, rural cities and counties that passed similar ordinances with little debate.
The Amarillo council has now spent three different meetings grappling with whether to approve the rules that were first proposed by anti-abortion activists. The Panhandle city has been a hot spot for the debate, as Interstates 40 and 27 run through the city.
Instead of the council’s usual headquarters, the session was held at the city civic center to accommodate the crowd. Nearly every seat in the room was taken, despite the council not allowing public comment this time.
Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley said the council was using the session as a way to “divide and separate things” and come back to what makes the most sense for the city.
“With our citizens in mind first, not what’s popular,” Stanley said.
Stanley said the council had to answer important questions regarding the ordinance — does local government have a role and duty to protect life? Can they further protect life? Has the state done enough?
Two council members, Don Tipps and Josh Craft, agreed the council has a duty to protect life. Lee Simpson said they were miles ahead of him on the ordinance.
“I'm willing to commit to asking questions so that I can then come to the opinion of whether it's the right thing for our community,” Simpson said.
Simpson later suggested the council work more on resolving human trafficking, which he said could go a long way in protecting children and preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortion. An older woman in the crowd broke the rules of decorum and booed his suggestion.
Council member Tom Scherlen also offered criticism of the council's work. He called one draft an overreach and said it would be bad for businesses.
"We're not in grade school," he said. "You can't just go regulating business. You're trying to overreach government wholeheartedly here."
Texas has one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the U.S. And these travel bans are an attempt to stop pregnant Texans from traveling to other states where the procedure remains legal to terminate their pregnancies.
The ordinance does not directly stop interstate travel by setting up physical barriers or checkpoints at the Texas-New Mexico border. Instead, the policy would outlaw the use of Amarillo’s roads to transport a pregnant person for an abortion in another state, opening the door for lawsuits from private Texans against anyone who “aids and abet” the procedure. Residents have criticized it as a tactic that turns neighbor against neighbor.
Proponents behind the ordinance are closely following the playbook for Senate Bill 8, a 2021 law, enforced entirely through private lawsuits, that banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
So far, five Texas counties — Lubbock, Cochran, Mitchell, Goliad and, as of this week, Dawson — have passed the travel bans. Odessa, with a population of nearly 117,000, and Little-River Academy, a small town of 2,200, have also passed similar policies. The majority of areas that have passed the ordinance are near the Texas-New Mexico border.
The Amarillo council first heard arguments about the ordinance in late October — just a day after county commissioners in neighboring Lubbock approved a similar policy. Then, council members punted the issue in order to hear more from residents.
The council suggested Tuesday any ordinance they settle on will go through several rounds of legal review before a final vote.