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Five men outlaw abortion in a Texas town, declaring a ‘sanctuary city for the unborn’

Officials in Waskom, Tex., voted on Tuesday to ban abortion, which they say makes their town the first "sanctuary city for the unborn" in the Lone Star State. (YouTube) (Screen grab via YouTube)

Five men this week declared a small town in East Texas a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” commandeering the language of the movement for immigrant rights to counter the reproductive freedom of women.

There are no abortion clinics in Waskom, Tex., a city of about 2,200, which lies on the border with Louisiana. But the all-male, all-white city council decided unanimously Tuesday that prohibiting abortion was necessary as a preventive measure.

The municipal prohibition, which plainly contradicts the judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court, joins statewide bans on abortion sweeping the country in the wake of the solidification of a conservative majority on the nation’s top court. In Texas, abortion has already been banned after 20 weeks. Now in the state, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would require doctors to treat “a child born alive after an abortion,” which happens rarely.

Supporters of the city ordinance say it is the first of its kind in the Lone Star State.

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The legislation was modeled on a measure embraced 7 to 1 in March by the city council of Roswell, N.M., which is best known as the site of a purported UFO crash in 1947. Roswell’s move to declare its support for “fetal life” was accompanied by a measure characterizing itself as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City,” in opposition to legislation advanced by the state legislature that expands background checks for private gun sales.

Waskom residents said they were unconcerned by the prospect of a costly legal fight over the abortion measure because, according to local media, “they say God will take care of them.”

Applause broke out in the chambers of the city council when all five local lawmakers raised their hands to signal their approval.

They were cheered by antiabortion activists who are fearful that a strict abortion ban in Louisiana — signed into law last month by the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards — might cause a facility that offers the procedure in Shreveport, about 20 miles east of Waskom, to move across the border. But the facility has no plans to relocate, according to a reporter covering the legislative effort for a CBS affiliate in Shreveport, Blane Skiles. He told The Washington Post that supporters of the city ban are citing an article that appeared in a local paper in 1991 indicating that a crackdown in Louisiana at that time risked driving the clinic’s director out of town. The director who made the vow to relocate, Robin Rothrock, died in 2011.

The legislation has additional aims, namely setting up a conflict with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court that made abortion a constitutional right. Nationwide, Republican lawmakers acknowledge that their effort to curtail abortion rights is part of a larger strategy to goad the Supreme Court into revisiting that decision.

Over the past two years, a tense political climate, abortion rights advocacy and Hulu's marketing have made the iconic red cape a symbol of protest. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Local efforts in Waskom are no different. City officials said they included exceptions for rape and incest, and cases where the mother’s life is at risk, to force a reckoning with the procedure of abortion itself, preventing a judgment based only on the absence of exceptions.

Lobbying for the ordinance was led by Right to Life of East Texas, whose director, Mark Lee Dickson, celebrated the unanimous vote in posts on Facebook.

He quoted from the measure, which states that “the Supreme Court erred in Roe v. Wade when it said that pregnant women have a constitutional right to abort their pre-born children.” It further describes the 1973 opinion as a “lawless and illegitimate act of judicial usurpation, which violates the Tenth Amendment by trampling the reserved powers of the States, and denies the people of each State a Republican Form of Government by imposing abortion policy through judicial decree.”

Dickson, who is a pastor at the Baptist Sovereign Love Church in Longview, Tex., added his interpretation of the measure, saying it meant that all organizations that provide abortions or assist others in obtaining the procedure “are now declared to be criminal organizations in Waskom, Texas.”

The antiabortion activist has thrown his weight behind some of the most sweeping efforts to outlaw the procedure, including by assigning criminal liability to women, and not just the doctors they seek out to end their pregnancies.

In April, he went to Austin to advocate for a bill that would have criminalized abortion without exception, making it possible to convict women who undergo the procedure of homicide, which can carry the death penalty in Texas. The measure, which earned a hearing before the state House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, was introduced by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, Tex., who argues that the measure is necessary to make women “more personally responsible.”

A Texas bill would make it possible to put women to death for having abortions

In a statement on Thursday, the executive director of Naral Pro-Choice Texas, Aimee Arrambide, called the ordinance a “dangerous attempt to undermine Roe v. Wade," and affirmed that, “abortion remains legal in all 50 states.”

“We will not be intimidated,” Arrambide pledged.

Before the Tuesday vote, Waskom’s mayor told council members that the city lacked the resources to engage in a lengthy legal battle over the legislation, the instigation of which is the professed aim of the ordinance.

“Most likely we will wind up getting sued if this is passed,” the mayor, Jesse Moore, said. “It could go to the Supreme Court.”

That prospect would present fiscal challenges for the city, lawmakers acknowledged.

“We don’t have the possible millions of dollars that it would take to take it to that level,” said alderman Jimmy Dale Moore, who nevertheless voted for the ordinance. “We can’t pay those kind of attorney’s fees. The city don’t have the money.”

Pointing to a member of the crowd gathered to watch the proceedings, the mayor advised, “Save your nickels and pennies,” eliciting chuckles from the public.

“We may need them,” he said.

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