Council Recap: Protecting Austinites’ Reproductive Rights

Austin City Council unanimously (in the absence of lone Republican Mackenzie Kelly) approved four items on Thursday, July 21, that aim to provide people within the city some legal protection should they seek or perform an abortion.

The special meeting was called following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. last month, which overturned its prior Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood decisions guaranteeing a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Texas, 2021’s Senate Bill 8 already made those providing or “aiding and abetting” abortion care after about six weeks (before many people know of their pregnancies) liable to civil lawsuits that can be filed by anybody.

In the same session, the Texas Legislature also passed a new “trigger law” that would make abortion care illegal at any time should Roe and Casey be overturned. That law will take effect 30 days after SCOTUS enters its final judgment in Dobbs, which normally happens about a month after the ruling is announced, so any day now. Because even 30 more days is too long for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, up for reelection, to wait to begin the show trials, he’s argued that the state’s 1923 statute banning abortion (albeit with less severe penalties than the new trigger law) remains in effect. It should be noted that none of these laws, by design, penalize people for seeking or obtaining an abortion, just those who provide or “aid and abet” the care.

Amid all this uncertainty and precarity, Council’s votes should provide a little bit of breathing room for people needing or providing abortions in Austin. The item most likely to have immediate impact is known as the GRACE Act (Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone), a measure introduced by Council Member Chito Vela that directs the Austin Police Department to “deprioritize” investigations into criminal offenses related to abortion.

Effectively, that means Council is asking APD (technically, they’re asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to ask APD Chief Joseph Chacon) not to devote any financial resources or labor to investigating cases related to abortions. Exceptions in the measure include instances where an abortion is being coerced, or when a provider is accused of negligence.

For now, APD has not indicated how it will respond to the GRACE Act. Chacon will have to work with his executive team and the city’s Law Department on implementation, but has not provided insight into what that might look like or how long it might take. In response to questions from the Chronicle, an APD spokesperson said, “We are working through the resolution and we’ll present next time when we come back to Council.”

The unanimous Council (Kelly missing the meeting due to a previously scheduled surgery) also approved an ordinance initiated by CM Vanessa Fuentes to protect people who’ve received “reproductive health actions” from discrimination in housing, employment, or access to public services. The other two resolutions adopted at the meeting were both from Mayor Steve Adler and related to “long-term birth control,” including vasectomy. One directs Cronk to explore a public education campaign about birth control options and to ensure that city employees’ health insurance covers “low-cost birth control.” (From an insurer’s perspective, vasectomy and tubal ligation are lower-cost than ongoing hormonal or barrier birth control.) Cronk is expected to report back to Council no later than Sept. 30.

Adler’s second resolution asks staff to recommend budget provisions that would enable city employees to have “reasonable access to reproductive health care services that are no longer lawfully available in Texas.” This resolution does not include a report-back date, but presumably staff would need to offer recommendations soon if they are to be adopted along with the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget on Aug. 17.

Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition and founder of the Frontera Fund, which has organized around abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley since 2014, told the Chronicle that she was encouraged by the items Council passed. “The most important thing for advocates right now is to get decriminalization measures and protections in place for folks seeking abortions, those providing abortions, and those helping other folks to get the abortion care that they need.”

The GRACE Act does not protect organizations, like the Lilith Fund in Austin, that had been helping individuals coordinate and pay for access to abortions. Depending on how APD implements the direction, however, it could protect someone who decides to help a friend or family member access an abortion. Still, Gonzalez said, the measures will help abortion care advocates in Austin because they will not have to focus as much on the criminalization of abortion in Texas.

“Locally, impact on abortion advocates is going to be a little bit of wiggle room and protection to do the advocacy work that we need to continue to do,” Gonzalez told us. “In Austin, at least, we won’t need to focus as much on creating bail funds and securing legal support for folks who might be criminalized” for seeking an abortion. She also hopes advocates can work together to pass similar measures in other cities throughout Texas.

At a press conference following the brief meeting, Council members and abortion access advocates offered their thoughts on the day’s Council action. “More than anything,” Vela began, “I do not want people to try and self-manage abortion and injure themselves. … We’re trying to make Austin as supportive and as safe of a city for abortion rights and for reproductive rights as possible.” He added that he and his colleagues would continue to work on other ways to help protect reproductive rights in Austin.

Fuentes said the Council action was an example of how municipalities will need to proceed under hostile state leadership and a rogue SCOTUS. “Our actions today shape the future of Austin and position us as a local government willing to go on the offensive,” Fuentes told reporters. The Texas GOP, Fuentes continued, is unlikely to stop with bodily autonomy as it relates to reproductive care – they have already set their sights on stripping away the rights of transgender persons and ending marriage equality.

“When they go after trans rights and marriage equality, we will fight back,” Fuentes said. “Even though we are in a dark time in our country, there is one comment that I can make: There are more of us than there are of them.”

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