Amarillo council may reconsider abortion travel ban after residents gather 10,000 signatures

The Amarillo City Council is expected to reconsider an abortion travel ban after supporters gathered 10,000 signatures from voters. If the council does not act, voters may have the final say in November. (Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune, Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — Anti-abortion activists in Amarillo say they have collected enough signatures — more than 10,000 — to force the City Council to reconsider a policy that would outlaw using local streets to access an abortion in other states.

Organizers submitted the petition to the city last week.

If they were indeed successful in collecting the required number of signatures — the city secretary must validate the signatures — the council would be required to take up the issue early this summer.

However, voters in the Texas Panhandle city may have the final say. The council can accept, reject, or amend the ordinance presented to them. Depending on the council’s decision, the residents behind the signature gathering can demand the issue go to the voters.

Amarillo stands apart from other conservative areas of the state. More than a dozen cities and counties, including Lubbock County, about 120 miles south of Amarillo, have passed similar policies, according to a tally kept by supporters of the bans.

Amarillo’s City Council first took up the issue in October, just one day after Lubbock County Commissioners approved the ordinance — making it the largest county to do so. In December, the council signaled it was willing to pass an ordinance that focused on restricting access to abortion-inducing medication for medical abortions, and regulating the disposal of human remains. That version of the policy would have removed the travel ban entirely — a key component for anti-abortion advocates, as Interstates 40 and 27 run through the city.

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Legal scholars have said the so-called abortion travel bans have questionable enforcement mechanisms, making them more a ceremonial declaration than a legally binding statute.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Mayor Cole Stanley said Amarillo has become a trophy for people on both sides of the issue.

Stanley has previously expressed concerns about the ordinance being misrepresented to residents and thinks that could have been the case with the petition, too.

“I think a large percentage of those people that signed the petition haven’t read it,” Stanley said. “I think they were asked ‘Hey, are you pro-life or pro-choice?’ And I don’t think it goes any further than that for the majority of those signatures.”

The original ordinance supporters are pushing would not punish the pregnant woman seeking an abortion. But anyone who “aids and abet” the procedure could face a private lawsuit from other citizens. This is the only enforcement mechanism for the ordinance, creating a system for neighbors to turn on each other to collect reward money. Some council members voiced their dislike of the idea in previous meetings.

Stanley said the proposed ordinance, which was drafted by anti-abortion activists, does not reflect local law. He said the council has drafted a document that is in line with local and state policies.

“These two documents are very similar,” Stanley said. “The main difference is there’s not anything that oversteps on civil liberties to drive on a road or to travel in between states.”

Stanley said he hopes the council can propose their version of the ordinance, and supporters of the ban would agree and withdraw their petition. This would stop the debate before it goes to the polls.

Jana May, an Amarillo resident who started the petition process, said she would be open to working with the City Council on the matter.

“I would like to see what their negotiations want to be and sit down and have a conversation about it,” May said. “It could be something as simple as using a different word here and there.”

May said she is praying for God to change the hearts of the council members and that she hopes the council approves the ban.

Supporters worked up to the last minute to get signatures, May said. These efforts were amplified by out-of-town anti-abortion activists including Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life of East Texas. May said Dickson brought in families from other cities to get more signatures in time. Billboards were also seen around the city that pushed their message, including some saying “Thwart Biden, prohibit abortion trafficking,” and “Stop Soros, prohibit abortion trafficking.”

Dickson said Amarillo is a key battleground in the national fight over abortion access, this includes a lawsuit between the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine and the FDA over mifepristone access.

“When that case was filed here, it put Amarillo at ground zero,” Dickson said. “So all across America, people have been paying attention to what’s going on here.”

Fariha Samad with The Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance disagreed and said this fight is on a local level. The advocacy group has been fighting the ordinance since it was first introduced and held a meeting Monday night. It was originally supposed to be the group’s celebration, as they thought the petition would not have enough signatures to turn in.

Now, the group is gearing up for the next part of the battle.

“We will be meeting with city officials and talking to our base, letting them know this is not the end of it, as much as we wish it were,” Samad said. “We hope the council votes with their consciences when they know a travel ban is wrong.”

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