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Amarillo City Council takes no action on proposed anti-abortion ordinance

The Amarillo City Council did not immediately pass an anti-abortion ordinance brought forward by a citizen committee at a May 28 meeting, citing concerns about the legality of certain portions.

Mayor Cole Stanley said the proposal’s abortion travel ban section is “unenforceable,” “uninvestigatable” and will “get us sued.” 

This is the latest in a months-long community debate over further abortion restrictions in Amarillo. In December, a group of 11 residents initiated an ordinance petition after the city council opted not to move forward yet with such a policy. Earlier this month, the city validated the petition, sending it to the council.

Citizen committee member Steve Austin said the group would be open to adding things to the ordinance, but had not agreed on removing any parts of it. The committee would not include an exclusion for parents and grandparents who “aid and abet” an illegal abortion.

Amarillo City Council now has less than a month to accept, amend or reject the citizens’ petition. If the council does not adopt the proposed ordinance, the citizen committee is likely to bring it to voters in November. The next public hearing is scheduled June 11, where an amended version may be presented.

The resident committee’s proposed ordinance includes statutes outlawing abortions for Amarillo residents regardless of where the procedure occurs, instating an abortion travel ban and criminalizing the unauthorized possession of drugs that can be used to terminate a pregnancy. Under these policies, it would be illegal to provide insurance coverage for an abortion, refer a person to an abortion provider, donate to an abortion fund and more.

Similar to statewide abortion restrictions, the ordinance would be privately enforced through lawsuits brought by citizens.

The council meeting saw hours of public comment.

One speaker, Amarillo native Isaish Flores, echoed the mayor’s concerns by discussing the ordinance’s potential infringement on interstate travel, a constitutionally recognized right.

“Our city will be forced to bear the burden of the legal and reputational cost associated with defending this policy,” Flores said. “This by no means is in the function, scope or realm of the city’s responsibility.”

John Barrett, a member of the citizen committee who brought the ordinance forward, said Attorney General Ken Paxton’s support of similar local policies “addresses our legal concerns.” He was later asked to provide specific examples of this by Mayor Cole Stanley, but could not at the time.

“We have completely covered our bases on this ordinance,” Barrett said.

While Paxton did say Lubbock’s 2021 anti-abortion ordinance was consistent with state law, it has major differences to the policy proposed today in Amarillo. Lubbock’s 2021 ordinance outlawed abortion within city limits, while the Amarillo ordinance includes more legally precarious bans on things like travel assistance, donations and medical referrals.

Many supporters of the ordinance cited religious beliefs.

Other speakers advocated for Amarillo to instead focus on preventing unplanned pregnancies in the community by investing in comprehensive sex education, family planning services and increased access to emergency contraceptives.

“Only then will Amarillo truly be a sanctuary city,” resident Brianna Kegel said. “Your respect for life cannot end at birth.”

Amarillo is a significant hub in the Texas Panhandle, housing over 203,000 residents and acting as a vital node connecting multiple states through Interstates 40 and 27. 

Stanley also presented an “alternate” Sanctuary City for the Unborn ordinance that he called “a good path forward.”

The alternate ordinance, which is much shorter than the original, fully adopts several provisions of state law regarding criminal liability for abortion, restrictions on abortion-inducing drugs, and the proper disposal of fetal tissue remains.

Stanley said the adopted ordinance would include both criminal and civil enforcement, but it does not include any of the specific prohibitions about abortion trafficking that the petition ordinance includes.

The Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance spoke in opposition to Stanley’s alternative, asking what purpose it would serve in just duplicating state law.

Stanley said he believes the alternate ordinance provides local direction for city officials in dealing with the proper disposal of fetal tissue remains, and also believes it clarifies that human life should be protected from fertilization rather than a fetal heartbeat.

The executive director of Hope Choice, Candy Gibbs, also presented her views about the proposed petition ordinance and the alternate.  She had strong words for the audience: “It would be arrogant and wrong to act as though we are the first in this community to put a stake in the ground to make a stand for life and the unborn.”

Gibbs said she does not support the petition ordinance for three reasons: the resources listed are government-funded and not faith-based, she opposes “telling people where they can drive,” and the ordinance provides for no exception from a private cause of action against a parent or grandparent who aids an abortion.

During her impassioned speech, Gibbs said that in her experience working at Hope Choice for nearly three decades, women have abortions because they are overwhelmed, feel in danger, and are scared.

According to data collected by the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, about 96 percent of abortions are for “elective or unspecified reasons.” Only about 0.4 percent are due to rape or incest and 0.3 percent involve the risk to the mother’s life or major bodily function.

Gibbs expressed her support for Stanley’s alternate ordinance, saying it prohibits abortion in the City of Amarillo, controls the disposal of fetal remains from out of state, and doesn’t allow the abortion pill inside Amarillo’s city limits.

May said that she thought Tuesday’s meeting was productive. “I think we can very possibly reach an agreement,” she said.

The petition initiating committee plans to provide its feedback  to the city council about the amendments or alternate ordinance before the scheduled public hearing.

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