In the past six months, ten small towns in Texas have declared themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” Twisting the language cities have used to offer shelter to undocumented immigrants from federal immigration authorities, these ordinances claim to offer protection to fetuses from the moment of conception — as if they are a protected class of people, persecuted by women who seek abortions and those who provide them. It’s the latest extreme tactic that fringe conservatives have taken up in an attempt to outlaw abortion, and the movement appears to be growing.
City councils in Big Spring, Colorado City, and Rusk, Texas, all voted in the last two weeks in favor of so-called “sanctuary” ordinances, which not only ban abortion but also say that the families of women who have abortions can sue providers in civil court for emotional distress. Some of “sanctuary” bans also declare providers like Planned Parenthood “criminal organizations,” and ban the sale of emergency contraceptives. Carthage, Texas, is considering adopting such a measure, according to pro-choice activists who have been testifying in front of the council there.
The first anti-abortion “sanctuary city” declaration, passed last summer by the all-male council of Waksom, Texas, was derided as a political sideshow at the time, a meaningless stunt led by anti-choice activist Mark Lee Dickson, who has compared abortion to the Holocaust. The ordinance and those it inspired face extremely dubious enforceability and legality: Most of the provisions are clearly unconstitutional, and would take effect only if Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court. The ACLU of Texas is already looking into striking down these ordinances, and three of the towns that have tried to pass the measures have either walked them back or have failed to get them to a vote.
But as outlandish as these political stunts may seem — and as illegal as they are — they still pose a real threat: by misleading women into thinking abortion has been banned in their area, or through stigmatizing them into silence. “‘Sanctuary cities’ are designed to confuse people about their rights, shame people who need abortions, and intimidate organizations who provide access to care,” Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, told the Cut. She notes that none of the towns that have passed these provisions even have abortion clinics — but it still sends a message. “What they do is say, ‘We don’t approve of this in our town,’” she said. It’s particularly chilling, given how precarious abortion access and support for those who seek abortions already is in Texas.
Like the network of right-wing funded, anti-choice “pregnancy crisis centers,” which masquerade as legitimate health-care providers while handing out anti-choice propaganda, the “sanctuary” movement is a surreptitious work-around intended to hamper the constitutional right to abortion, fueled by disinformation tactics and intimidation. Even if, according to the ACLU, no one has yet tried to sue an abortion provider or someone who transported a woman who sought care, which some of the ordinances allow, these extreme policies work to create an even more fearful environment for the most vulnerable women. “They’re making regular people very confused about what their options are,” says Conner. Her organization has received panicked phone calls after “sanctuary” declarations, with women convinced that abortion is no longer legal.
Activists report hearing that hundreds of towns may be targeted by the “sanctuary” movement; there are potentially thousands of women, already living in areas with extremely restricted access, who will face even more obstacles to accessing abortion safely. Ordinances are voted on not by residents, which can number anywhere from a few thousand to 20,000 people, but by councils that may have as few as nine members, who are predominantly white men. “Privileged people with wealth can likely travel to get abortion access if they need it,” Conner says. “If women aren’t as lucky they might just give up.”
Though some anti-choice activists reportedly see the “sanctuary” movement as a fringe distraction from ongoing efforts by state legislatures to curtail abortion rights at that level, Conner believes that the anti-choice right-wing could also be using them in an attempt to corral public support for when abortion is challenged again in the Texas state legislature — or even at the level of the Supreme Court, which voted in October to hear a legal challenge to abortion law in Louisiana. Despite 57 percent of Texans supporting Roe v. Wade in recent polls, “When it’s time,” Connor says, “they want to be able to say that people who live here don’t want abortion to be legal.”