Anti-Choice City Ordinances Are Proliferating. Here’s How a Lawsuit Can Stop Them.

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Anti-Choice City Ordinances Are Proliferating. Here’s How a Lawsuit Can Stop Them.

Paige Alexandria

The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting unenforceable anti-choice city ordinances as they spread across the United States.

After having dinner with her family on a Wednesday evening in March, Angela browsed social media and saw a news article reporting that a city near her Nebraska home had passed an ordinance declaring fetuses have rights.

The mayor of Auburn, Nebraska, had cast the city council’s tie-breaking vote in favor of this statement: “The city of Auburn, Nebraska, shall be known as a community that supports the inalienable right to life for all citizens, born and pre-born, and respects and defends their inherent dignity, value, and importance at every stage of development.”

“I was extremely angry seeing that,” Angela, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told Rewire.News. “The fact that we have people try to tell others what to do with their bodies by passing a statement like that is insane to me. It’s just absurd.”

Angela had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska—one of the closest abortion clinics to Auburn—when she was a teenager, with the support of her mother. At the time, three doctors told her mother that if Angela continued the pregnancy, both she and the fetus would likely not survive. She still experienced shame from other family members, and was told she’d have to live the rest of her life knowing she was a “murderer” if she had an abortion.

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Angela says the stigma affected her for years afterward. “I went most of my later teenage years not even putting my name on my work in school. I’d put ‘nobody’ or ‘murderer,’” she told Rewire.News.

It wasn’t until adulthood that Angela started to believe she wasn’t a murderer—which she attributes to getting educated about pregnancy development and science-based medical facts about abortion care. Now, she considers herself an abortion rights advocate who believes everyone should have access to the care they need.

Across the United States, city councils have approved anti-choice measures since a New Mexico city adopted a resolution in 2019 declaring life begins at conception. Texas was the first state in which town and city councils began passing unenforceable ordinances that not only implied abortion is illegal but also labeled abortion rights organizations and providers as “criminal entities” and cannot operate within city limits. Advocates have said the ordinances are confusing and intimidating, and have spread as officials in some states look to use the COVID-19 outbreak to ban abortion care, creating confusion about abortion access.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Texas announced they’re suing seven cities in the state that label organizations as criminal.

“The intent behind this [Auburn] statement is to stigmatize abortion providers and patients,” Andi Curry Grubb, Nebraska executive director of Planned Parenthood North Central States, told Rewire.News. “It’s part of an aggressive, nationwide anti-abortion agenda to do one thing—ban abortion outright.”

Even though abortion is legal in all 50 states, this messaging creates misinformation that can spread like wildfire across communities, especially in rural areas where abortion access and support is limited. Auburn is the first community in Nebraska to take this step. In August, Auburn tried and failed to pass a resolution that said the same thing.

“If I lived in a town that declared itself pro-life, I never would have thought I’d be able to get an abortion, and it would have stigmatized the experience even more for me afterwards,” Angela said. “I’d still have to live there.”

Not all council members were in favor of the Auburn statement. Auburn council member Katy Billings is “significantly” pro-life, a stance she attributes to her Catholic faith. Billings told Rewire.News that she “cares about all people, and that includes the pre-born.” But in last week’s hearing, she made an “anguished” decision to cast her vote against the statement.

“I grew up here. I love Auburn,” she said. “There are all sorts of people I know and respect in Auburn, and I felt it wasn’t in the best interest of the city to be a platform to move someone’s political agenda.”

“My vote [against the statement] was made because I did not want to produce what I thought was unnecessary conflict over something so divisive and deeply personal to so many people,” Billings added.  “I also didn’t think it was in our best interest to set a precedent [that allows] people to create statements however they want, ask for those statements to be included in our agenda, and ask for formal action on the statement. I don’t think that’s what our local city council should be doing—there are other significant issues we should be focusing on.”

Like the Texas ordinances, an issue with the Auburn city statement is that it’s vague.

“When they say we can’t operate in the city, what does that even mean?” Cristina Parker, communications director for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, a partner in the lawsuit against the seven Texas cities, told Progress Texas.

Billings raised similar concerns about the Auburn statement. “The ambiguity of the statement was part of my hesitation. It’s broad [and] it leaves a lot of questions. The statement does not delineate any sort of action—a typical resolution does,” Billings said.

“You can understand the statement, it’s clear in what it’s saying, but what action is from the statement?” Parker continued. “It’s up to a lot of interpretation, you can look at it a lot of different ways. If we are a city that supports right to life, what does that mean? Does it include city employees? Does it mean if [a city employee] expresses they’re pro-choice, does that mean we wouldn’t allow them to work for the city?”