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Local voters will decide Saturday if Lubbock becomes the state’s next “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
The election could make the West Texas city a test case for a burgeoning movement that began in the East Texas town of Waskom and has since prompted some two dozen cities to try to outlaw abortions. Nearly all of them are in Texas, but Lubbock is the largest and the first that is home to an abortion provider — Planned Parenthood, which opened a clinic to offer birth control and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted infections last fall. The clinic began providing abortions this month.
“They’re murdering babies here in our city,” said Jim Baxa, with West Texas for Life, an anti-abortion organization. “We need to stop that.”
Abortion rights advocates say the proposed ordinance amounts to an extreme ban that is out of step with the views held by a majority of polled Texans, who support some allowances for abortions, like in cases of rape or incest.
But the vote has also pit Lubbock’s hardline conservative base and large churches against the City Council and a former GOP precinct chair, who say battles over abortion access are best fought at the state and federal levels. City Council members, several of whom have said they oppose abortion, say the proposed ordinance could be challenged in court, teeing up a costly legal fight.
“Taxpayers are being used as pawns essentially to have this legal battle at their expense,” said Aurora Farthing, the former GOP precinct chair who started a political action committee urging residents to vote against the proposed ordinance.
The May election is unusual: Lubbock’s citywide officials are typically voted on in even-numbered years, and the proposed abortion-related ordinance is the first citizen-led ballot item since a 2013 recall election, the city secretary’s office said.
It’s unclear how much the May election will cost, though recent elections have had tabs between $159,000 and $240,000.
The push to make Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years. Anti-abortion activists — led by state Sen. Charles Perry, from Lubbock, and others — rallied enough signatures to bring the measure to the City Council, which unanimously rejected the proposed ordinance, citing legal advice that it would conflict with state law. But the proposed ordinance will still be put to a public vote Saturday, under the city charter’s rules.
In a letter demanding that the proposed ordinance be placed on the ballot, the activists said it was “because we fear God, view the intentional shedding of the blood of unborn children to be an inconceivably wicked action, and we believe that we all have a responsibility to protect the lives of the smallest and most vulnerable humans among us,” it said.
Perry said he was tied up with the Legislature but would have a comment after the election Saturday.
The proposed measure outlaws abortions within the city’s limits, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and those who assist someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic. It would not be enforced by the government unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision or made other changes to abortion laws.
There isn’t an exception for people pregnant as a result of rape or incest.
The strategy of waging abortion fights at the local level has divided staunch anti-abortion activists, and several other Texas towns, including Mineral Wells and Omaha, have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.
The vote comes as the Texas Legislature and other Republican-led statehouses across the country are pushing to curtail abortion access and challenge Roe v. Wade before a newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, said the proposed ordinance tries to make a “clever end run around Roe.”
Because local officials wouldn’t enforce the prohibition if it’s passed, ordinance proponents say there’d be no one for abortion providers to sue to stop the ban from taking effect. Instead, Rosen expects a private citizen would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.
Rosen expects the ordinance would be “DOA” — dead on arrival — in the courts, but it might cost a lot of money for abortion rights proponents to defend.
“As long as Roe is good law, I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys’ fees, and it takes time,” Rosen said.
Proponents of the ordinance are confident they’ll prevail in court and are deeply skeptical of a 17-page legal analysis posted on the city website and cited by the City Council that says the proposed ordinance is void under state law. They also have an attorney who has offered to work free of charge, but there could be other costs, like for the opposite side’s attorneys.
Groundswell of activism
The election — typically a low-turnout affair dominated by municipal issues — has sparked a groundswell of activism in Lubbock. The early voting turnout has already surpassed May elections going back to 2009, when voters of the formerly “dry” city allowed beer and liquor to be sold in Lubbock’s stores.
In early April, several pastors and their wives gathered at the invitation of a group supporting the anti-abortion ordinance at a venue called Spirit Ranch. David Wilson, pastor at Southcrest Baptist Church, where Perry is a deacon, said the building was “completely full,” and that he’d rarely seen that kind of unity and involvement across denominations.
“If this was a tax issue, the churches wouldn’t be involved in this, obviously,” he said. “But moral issue has to do with life, and we believe that life is a gift from God.”
Wilson said his church has set up tables to help parishioners register to vote and hung a banner declaring its support of the movement. The church has given out flyers and urged people to put pro-ordinance signs in their yards. After Easter, he told attendees of the church — which drew 3,000 to Sunday services before the pandemic, and draws around 2,300 now — about the coming election.
“We try to make it very clear, we’re not condemning anybody who’s had an abortion,” he said.
Meanwhile, an anti-ordinance coalition that includes Planned Parenthood has organized block-walkers to knock on doors and call prospective voters — some of whom seem to not know much about what the proposed ordinance would do, said one 46-year-old campaign volunteer named Kim Gonzalez.
“Once we start talking about the details, they don’t like to hear that women who are victims of rape and incest aren’t excluded from this,” she said. “A whole bunch of people are just like, you know, ‘Wow, I’m really glad that you called me and told me, I’m going to get out to vote.’”
Gonzalez, who said she worked in health care for 20 years, said it had long been apparent to her that “women didn’t have proper reproductive health care here in West Texas,” where the nearest abortion clinics were 300 miles away in Fort Worth or New Mexico.
Sarah Wheat, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, said in a statement that the organization provides “respectful, compassionate services” for those seeking abortions and other health services, regardless of the patient’s income level or insurance status.
“Political efforts underway in Lubbock and the Texas Legislature would create new barriers to abortion that disproportionately impact low-income patients and communities of color,” Wheat said.
The movement spreads
The “sanctuary city for the unborn” movement has rippled through towns, often spurred by fears that abortion access will expand or frustration from conservatives that state lawmakers aren’t doing enough to curtail the procedure.
Mark Lee Dickson, the East Texas pastor behind the movement, said he approached the mayor of Waskom in 2019, out of concern that a Louisiana abortion provider might relocate across the border to the town.
Waskom became the first in the nation to pass an ordinance outlawing abortions, he said. Since then, towns as far away as Nebraska have made similar moves.
“We see abortion as the ending of human life. We see it as murdering little children,” Dickson said in a phone interview from Florida, where there’s a similar push for a “sanctuary city” in Naples. “These are very conservative communities that are very God-fearing people, and they did not want to see something like that … just like some people wouldn’t want to see a strip club in their community.”
Dickson’s activism was spreading in West Texas around the time Planned Parenthood was preparing to open a clinic in Lubbock, said Terisa Clark, a volunteer with a pro-ordinance group called Project Destiny.
She said the proposed ordinance reflects the beliefs of her conservative city and portrayed some of those fighting it as out-of-town outsiders, citing the source of donations received by organizations on different sides of the campaign.
That’s partly why she likes the idea of putting the abortion ban to local voters.
“We recognize that [the state Legislature has] a hard time getting things passed because there are a bunch of representatives that represent [a] diverse group of people,” she said.
State lawmakers earned the ire of hardline conservatives last session by focusing on bread-and-butter issues like property taxes and school finance. This year, they’ve backed a slate of abortion restrictions that abortion rights advocates call the most “extreme” nationwide.
But Baxa, with West Texas for Life, said lawmakers are still being too timid and have ignored a bill that that would criminalize abortion — and potentially open up doctors and women who get abortions to charges that carry the death penalty.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas — which sued Waskom and six other East Texas towns that declared themselves sanctuaries — is watching the vote closely. (The lawsuit was dropped; those cities aren’t home to abortion providers and had differently worded ordinances.)
Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the group, said the proposed ordinance is structured to “undo our natural checks and balances” in an attempt to let “unconstitutional laws can go into effect.” It’s a pattern that’s been replicated in abortion restrictions now before the state Legislature.
“Whether or not they’ll be successful is certainly still an open question,” she said. “But I do absolutely think that this is the new strategy from the … anti-abortion movement.”
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and Texas Tech University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.