After pause, this Texas city is set to reconsider banning travel to access an abortion

By Jayme Lozano Carver 

The Texas Tribune

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Near the tip of the top of the state, Amarillo is far from the Capitol in Austin, Dallas’ busy downtown, and Houston’s congested highways. The “floating” city in the Panhandle is often forgotten by much of the state, residents say. Most of the country has never heard of their home.

That changed when the Amarillo City Council took up a proposed abortion travel ban in October. The debate put an unfamiliar spotlight on the city — activists flocked to Amarillo, national organizations joined local efforts, and council members’ phones rang off the hook.

Adding to the public interest was how the council responded to it. Led by Mayor Cole Stanley, the five-member council said they would not rush to approve it. Unlike other city and county officials, Amarillo’s leaders punted the issue in a rare step that would allow more thoughtful consideration and input from residents.

The conversation is set to continue. The council announced Tuesday it will consider the ordinance during a Dec. 19 meeting. The council will use that meeting to navigate “the right way forward,” Stanley said. The news comes as Texas makes national headlines once again for its restrictive abortion laws — a Dallas woman left the state this week to terminate a non-viable pregnancy after a losing legal battle to obtain one here.

Council members have not signaled how they could change the ordinance since it was originally presented.

With a vote on the travel ban in Amarillo looming, residents including abortion activists, health care workers and legal professionals, are worried. Their top concern: This ordinance would create an atmosphere of fear and make it more difficult to access standard health care in this largely rural area of the state where people have to travel long ways for care as is.

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There is reason to worry about an erosion to health care for expecting mothers: One study found maternal deaths were two times higher in rural communities in the U.S. than urban areas. The state also ranks last in the U.S. in access to high-quality prenatal and maternal care.

Adding to their concerns are the ongoing lawsuits from women across Texas detailing the complications that have come up in much-wanted pregnancies and the traumatic outcomes since the state banned nearly all abortions in June 2022.

“So many rural counties are maternal health care deserts, and things like this ordinance just worsens it,” said Fariha Samad, an Amarillo resident and member of the Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance. “It creates an atmosphere of fear.”

Even though Texas has a near-total ban, the proposed travel ordinances are the next fight for access. The so-called travel ban 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. The lawsuits are the only enforcement mechanism for the ordinance.

It’s the enforcement that these residents can’t look past. Amarillo civic leaders take pride in having a friendly, neighborly atmosphere in the community. Neighbors turning each other in to collect reward money seemingly goes against that, and some council members said in the first meeting they did not like that element of the ordinance.

“I’d say most people, even here in the heart of Trump Country, are against restrictive statutes,” said Ryan Brown, an Amarillo attorney. “As written, this ordinance further divides the citizens of Amarillo and will put citizens against each other.”

Council member Tom Scherlen was happy to see what he calls “true democracy” during the council’s first meeting on the topic. He said both sides were mostly able to speak in a respectful manner, and it’s a reflection of the close community. Scherlen said Amarillo is very conservative, but he has to represent all viewpoints.

“I’m very pro-life, but I was elected by all citizens to represent all citizens,” Scherlen told the Tribune. “At some point in time, I’m going to have to separate my feelings from what I need to do as a council member.”

During the last meeting, several supporters of the ordinance from New Mexico and other areas of Texas were in attendance and encouraged the council to adopt the ban and stop “abortion trafficking.” Similar sentiments were echoed at Tuesday’s city council meeting, with one resident pointing to recent abortion legal battles as evidence the ordinance would stand legally.

Brown, the attorney in Amarillo, believes the ordinance was written to be confusing.

“I think the statute is just meant to scare people and deter abortions,” Brown said. “So the key is to educate people about the weaknesses.”

Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life of East Texas and the anti-abortion activist behind the ordinance, previously told the Tribune that he believes it would hold up in court.

“The abortion trafficking ordinances do not interfere with the right to travel,” he wrote in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The ordinances only impose penalties on those who are using roads within the county to traffic pregnant mothers across state lines for the purpose of an abortion.”

In the days following the first meeting, Dickson shared on social media that Amarillo would be his primary base of operations for the time being.

The ordinance does not directly stop interstate travel by setting up physical barriers or checkpoints at the Texas-New Mexico border, but legal experts say it is still a violation. Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge and professor at Harvard Law School, said the ordinance challenges constitutional rights because interstate travel is being affected and essentially penalized.

“By criminalizing support for travel, they are functionally doing the same thing,” said Gertner, who spent much of her career advocating for women’s rights and civil liberties.

Gertner said that if the ordinance passes, people should challenge it regardless of the likely outcome. She added that the next step would be to mobilize voters.

“We goofed with Roe v. Wade, the movement dissolved because people thought it was secure,” Gertner said. “It was never secure. So now the political movement is rebuilding.”

So far, four counties — Lubbock, Cochran, Mitchell and Goliad — 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. Amarillo, with more than 200,000 residents, would be the most populous city in Texas to put a ban in place if it is approved.

In November, state Sen. Nate Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 45, which would prohibit abortion travel bans. Johnson said “this is a flagrant infringement upon the constitutional right to interstate travel. It’s a pernicious Big Government acting at the local level.”

Like most bills that did not fit the parameters of the special session, it failed to get a hearing, though it signals Democrats are prepared to make this an issue going forward.

Similar bans are being put in other states and are being met with legal challenges. The U.S. justice department filed a statement of interest in two lawsuits out of Alabama seeking to protect the right to interstate travel. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that it demonstrates the department’s commitment to defending the right to travel.

The department also mentions how the Supreme Court has held the belief that states may not prevent third parties from assisting others in exercising their right to travel.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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