The Real Goal Behind Unenforceable City Council Abortion Bans (Updated)

City councils are passing abortion bans that serve to confuse and intimidate those seeking abortion care. Pro-choice advocates are pushing back.

[Photo: A large billboard that reads 'Abortion is Freedom’ rises between buildings.]
Courtesy of Lilith Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas

UPDATE, May 27, 2020, 3:41 p.m.: The ACLU dropped its lawsuit after all seven Texas cities amended the ordinances to remove language calling abortion advocates “criminal entities,” the Panola Watchman reported.

UPDATE, February 25, 2020, 4:26 p.m.: The ACLU of Texas and ACLU National on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against seven Texas cities that prohibit abortion providers and advocates from operating within city limits.

Among an unprecedented wave of state-level abortion bans, officials in cities and towns are taking similar action in an attempt to ban the procedure within their borders. But because these measures cannot legally be enforced, advocates say they only serve to shame and confuse people seeking abortion care.

In June, the all-male city council in the east Texas town of Waskom unanimously passed an abortion ban, declaring Waskom a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” Along with prohibiting abortion, the ordinance lists advocacy organizations and abortion providers as criminal organizations, including the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Planned Parenthood, and the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity. 

In response to the Waskom ordinance, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity funded billboards reading “Abortion is freedom” and directed people to, where they can find more information about how to access abortion care where they live. The billboards went up the last week of June and will run along Interstate 20 in Waskom until July 21.

“We wanted people to know we weren’t going to be intimidated out of doing our work in educating and helping people access their right to abortion care,” Cristina Parker, communications director for Lilith Fund, told Rewire.News. “We wanted to dispel some of the shame, confusion, and intimidation the Waskom City Council has obviously tried to do. Our work doesn’t stop because they pulled a publicity stunt.” 

“Our main concern [with the ordinance] is people in Waskom or nearby thinking they no longer have a right to abortion care, which I think was part of the purpose—to shame and intimidate people,” Parker said. 

Waskom, a town of about 2,200 people has no clinics that provide abortion, but supporters of the measure say the ordinance is necessary to prevent abortion providers in neighboring Louisiana from moving across the border and establishing clinics in Waskom. Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a near-total abortion ban in May, making Louisiana one of nine states to pass abortion bans this year. None of these abortion bans are in effect, and several are being litigated. 

The Waskom ordinance has no immediate legal implications since it can’t be enforced and there are no abortion clinics in the city to bring a lawsuit. However, it further stigmatizes those seeking abortion care, said Jordan Goldberg, director of policy with the National Institute for Reproductive Health. 

“Right now, its main impact is to be a deterrent for anyone who may provide or seek abortion care in that town because it’s so hostile,” Goldberg told Rewire.News. “Its purpose is to make anybody who might provide or support abortion care to feel nervous, afraid for their safety, and stigmatized in their positions. It can affect all of that without the law going into effect.” 

City councils in Utah and New Mexico have passed resolutions with similar language, but Waskom is the first to pass an ordinance banning abortion, Goldberg said. A resolution passed by the city council in Riverton, Utah, in May defines life as beginning at conception and states that “human life must always be valued and protected.” The resolution shows support for health-care providers that refuse to provide abortion on moral grounds and opposes lessening restrictions on abortion providers. 

The measure was modeled after a resolution passed in March by the city council in Roswell, New Mexico, declaring life begins at conception and “innocent human life” deserves protection. In Raleigh, North Carolina, anti-choice community members have  urged their city council to pass a similar resolution, establishing Raleigh as a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” 

While these types of non-binding resolutions have no legal effect on abortion providers, such legislation sends a clear message to people that their right to end a pregnancy isn’t valued, Goldberg said. 

“It has no actionable impact, but it communicates a key piece of their town’s message,” Goldberg said. “I’m sure for the people who live there who can become pregnant it has a really stigmatizing and negative impact.”

Abortion bans, whether they be at the state or city level, contribute to confusion, Goldberg said. None of the many near-total abortion bans passed by GOP-held legislatures are being enforced, but that isn’t always clear to people who may be uncertain about whether they can still access abortion care. 

“Since these bans started happening there’s been an overwhelming amount of phone calls to the clinics in these different states with people asking if their appointment is canceled and if they can still come in,” Goldberg said. “These clinics have dedicated a lot of time to reassuring their patients that abortion is still legal.” 

Anti-choice resolutions and ordinances passed by city and town councils may not have a legal impact, but there are actions cities can take that play a role in how easily residents can access reproductive health care, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager with the Guttmacher Institute. Cities can and have used zoning laws and land-use codes to shutter or restrict abortion clinics’ operations.

“It’s a different approach, but the same idea—to make it hard to access abortion and signal to pregnant people that they do not have bodily autonomy,” Nash told Rewire.News in an email. 

City councils can show their support for abortion rights through resolutions, Goldberg said, which can help to destigmatize abortion. Several cities in Ohio, including Toledo, Cleveland, and Columbus, have passed resolutions opposing the state’s “heartbeat bill,” which bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution opposing Georgia Republicans’ near-total abortion ban

“Resolutions can have a positive impact, particularly in states that have passed bans or terrible abortion laws for the city to say that’s not us, we care about the people who live here, we are going to stand up for your rights in the way that we can,” Goldberg said. “It’s important for people to know that their city council people are on their side.”