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Austin City Council unanimously votes to limit enforcement of abortion ban   

Supporters of the GRACE Act say they want to safeguard reproductive health care choices, but it remains to be seen how successful those efforts will be.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously passed a range of measures meant to safeguard residents’ reproductive choices following last month’s Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The move comes as cities across the country have sought ways to protect patients in the face of new statewide abortion bans.

Nashville, Atlanta, Boise and New Orleans have all passed resolutions limiting the ability of local authorities to pursue criminal charges for abortions. In Texas, Denton became the first Lone Star State city to do so last month.

Officials in San Antonio are considering similar move, though a vote has not yet apparently been scheduled. Meanwhile, an equivalent measure failed in El Paso after officials there expressed concerns about circumventing state abortion bans.

The four measures Austin passed — which supporters collectively call the GRACE (Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone) Act — have several key components.

The resolutions order Austin police to treat abortion ban enforcement as its “lowest priority." It prevents using city funds to “store or catalog” reports of abortions or to “conduct surveillance” about possible violations of abortion laws.

The resolutions direct the city manager to study the “feasibility” of ensuring city employees still have access to reproductive health care. They establish a public-education campaign about vasectomies, noting that the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies often “disproportionately falls on women.” Last but not least, they prevent employment and housing discrimination in Austin based on whether someone is pregnant or has had an abortion.

“The City of Austin honors the rights of pregnant people to bodily autonomy and control over their private medical decisions,” one of the resolutions reads. “Access to a safe and legal abortion is a deciding factor in long-term health, safety, and quality of life.”

Emotions ran high during the public comment period before the vote, with around two dozen people, mostly women, speaking on the ordinance.

Many said they were testifying not just as residents, but as representatives for pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion groups. Supporters thanked the council, and some shared their own abortion stories. Detractors chided the council for what they described as a lack of interest in alternatives such as birth.

Emily Witt, a communications strategist for the progressive Texas Freedom Network, shared her experience of having a miscarriage. She had gotten pregnant at 18 after birth control failed, she said. As she was figuring out her options, she miscarried.

“I can’t imagine how scared I would be if I found myself in that situation now,” Witt said. “Fearful to go to the doctor, because I might be accused of crime.”

“We know that people in Texas have already been criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes,” she added. “Our city resources should not be used to terrorize and harass abortion seekers.”

Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director at the Austin Justice Coalition, also spoke in favor of the resolutions. She had been an abortion rights advocate for years and at times had helped escort patients into clinics, she said. Interacting with abortion patients had "strengthened my commitment to this work.”

Gonzalez wore a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Everyone loves someone who had an abortion.”

“Forcing birth is immoral and wrong,” she said, and Austin had “no business” using its city powers to enforce “human rights violations.”

“Abortion is sacred,” she concluded. “Thank you so much for this work.”

Council members also heard from several residents, including those who called in remotely, who raised concerns about abortion restrictions in Texas.

One resident said Texas should brace for the “financial implications” of banning abortions, including the possibility that young women would decide to go to college in other states. Another, a certified genetic counselor, said that in her line of work she often saw “wanted pregnancies that are not compatible” with the health of the mother or child.

“Me and my husband would like to have a third child, [but] to be honest, we’re scared,” she said. “I certainly do not want to die in order to have a third child.”

On the other side, almost everyone who spoke against the resolutions said they were affiliated with an anti-abortion group or crisis pregnancy center. Mary Elizabeth Castle, a policy adviser with the conservative group Texas Values, accused the City Council of “political posturing” and said they had a long history of “pushing pro-abortion activism.”

Ashley Leenerts, a legislative associate for Texas Right to Life, said the council was promoting “the false narrative that women can’t succeed with the option of abortion." She urged members to “focus on making Austin a life-affirming city." Amy O’Donnell, a communications director for Texas Alliance for Life, said that coping with an unplanned pregnancy in college was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done” and that she had cried for several days after learning she was pregnant. Still, she said it was a “lie” that “women have to kill our babies to achieve great things in life.”

City Council members made it clear from the outset where they stood on the measures. Councilmember José Vela, who sponsored all four resolutions, said that “Austin has always been a leader in reproductive rights” and that he was “humbled and grateful” to be continuing the fight. Councilmember Ann Kitchen said it was “not the role of the state” to dictate decisions on abortion and that she felt “a lot of angst” about the fact that Austin was now in this position.

Councilmember Vanessa Fuentes said Austin was “sending a message” in support of abortion rights. Likewise, Mayor Steve Adler stressed he still believed in a constitutional right to abortion. Shortly after public comments and without debate, the City Council unanimously passed all four resolutions.

It remains to be seen whether the GRACE Act will actually make Austin safer for those seeking abortions. The strategy of deprioritizing certain crimes has worked in the past for other issues, including for drug-reform advocates aiming to reduce marijuana arrests.

Still, state lawmakers in Texas seem determined to prevent pro-abortion rights Texans from circumventing statewide bans, including by threatening companies and abortion funds that have tried to help people travel out-of-state. A new proposal in Texas would also allow district attorneys to prosecute cases outside of their jurisdiction in the event that local authorities decline to enforce abortion laws.

The fight over abortion rights in liberal Austin is far from over, and the capital city may well see legal challenges over its efforts to protect patients and their allies. In El Paso this month, a similar proposal failed after some City Council members expressed concern about its legality.

In that case, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser cast the deciding vote against deprioritizing abortion arrests. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we are governed by the state of Texas.”

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