Proposed travel ban would forbid using Amarillo's roads to get an abortion out of state

Legal experts say the proposed law would violate constitutional rights

Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Amarillo residents will vote on a so-called abortion travel ban in November, one of the few times Texas voters will have a say on abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022.

Supporters of the measure, who gathered 6,300 verified signatures to petition for approval of the ordinance, submitted their request to city officials to have it placed on the Nov. 5 ballot after the Amarillo City Council rejected it last month, per local rules.

Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley confirmed reports about the committee requesting to add the ordinance to the November ballot. Stanley said the request will be on the agenda for the council’s next meeting on July 9. The council will take a procedural vote, which Stanley said is expected to pass, so it will be officially placed on the ballot.

This ballot move is the latest salvo in the battle over abortion rights in the conservative Panhandle city, and in a state with one of the most restrictive bans in the nation.

The ordinance, first proposed by anti-abortion activists, aims to forbid the use of the city’s roads and highways to seek an abortion out of the state. It would punish anyone aiding a woman seeking the procedure, including by providing funds or transportation, and be enforced through private lawsuits, similar to a 2021 state law that prohibited abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

The measure does not call for pregnant women to be punished for having an abortion elsewhere. However, Jonathan Mitchell, an anti-abortion lawyer who is working with the ordinance’s supporters, has filed legal petitions seeking to depose women he claims traveled outside Texas for abortions.

If passed, the measure would not directly stop interstate travel. But legal experts say it is still a violation of constitutional rights and have called the bans legally dubious.

After the Amarillo City Council balked at passing the ordinance last year, residents began collecting signatures to petition to have the council consider the measure, and to place it on a local ballot if it wasn’t passed by the council. Last month, the council rejected both the original ordinance and an amended version that would have declared the city a “sanctuary city for the unborn” and prohibited using city roads and highways to seek abortion out of state.

Once the council rejected it, supporters of the ordinance were allowed to place it on the ballot for local voters.

“The people will speak and we will hear what they want,” Amarillo City Council member Tom Scherlen said. “Through our process, we will see which side wins.”

Scherlen added, “When it gets down to it, we live in a democratic society where the vote does count.”

There have been voting referendums on abortion in other states, but the one in Amarillo moves toward restricting access instead of restoring it. Since the Dobbs decision, voters in only four states — California, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont — have approved measures that amend their respective state constitutions to protect abortion rights, according to data from KFF. Two measures that sought to curtail rights in Kansas and Kentucky failed.

In nine states, there are citizen-initiated measures seeking to protect or recognize abortion rights by putting the issue on a statewide ballot.

Stanley said the council would still have a role in making sure the public is properly notified on the language of the ordinance, because there are differences from similar laws passed by other cities and counties in Texas.

In a statement, the Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance, a local advocacy group that has rallied against the ordinance, said the travel ban had a “clear and resounding rejection.”

“We are deeply disappointed that the misguided initiating committee has chosen to ignore the majority of Amarillo citizens and our duly elected representatives by placing this unconstitutional ban on the ballot,” the group said in a statement.

This story was originally published by The Texas Tribune and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.
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