Following the Supreme Court’s revokal of the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, El Paso is joining other Texas cities in trying to shield residents from a state law that will soon outlaw most abortions.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello is proposing creating a policy that would prevent the city from funding efforts to investigate or collect information about abortions, which will soon face stiff criminal penalties in Texas. The proposal would also direct the city manager to work with El Paso police to “make investigating abortions their lowest priority.”
“We hear so often that our police are overworked, they don’t have enough officers, they can’t respond to things fast enough. And so now they’re responsible for regulating incidents of abortion, or perceived abortion? It’s not a good use of anyone’s money,” Annello said.
The proposal will be taken up at Tuesday’s City Council work session. It is being co-sponsored by city Rep. Henry Rivera.
The law criminalizing abortions in Texas, House Bill 1280, will take effect 30 days after the Supreme Court issues a judgment officially overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to an abortion. That judgment has not yet been issued, but the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling has already had an effect on El Paso – its Planned Parenthood clinic has paused abortion services, though remains open.
With the sole exception of cases where a pregnant patient’s life or “major bodily function” is in danger, performing an abortion will become a first-degree felony under the Texas law. Defendants could face up to life in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
While HB 1280 does not allow prosecutions of abortion patients, they could still face police interrogations and be asked to participate in law enforcement investigations or prosecutions of the person who performed their procedure.
In states where abortion is soon to become outlawed, some local leaders are making an effort to minimize criminalization of the procedure as much as possible within their jurisdiction.
In Texas, at least five district attorneys have promised not to prosecute abortion-related crimes. El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales’ office has not responded to multiple requests for comment as to whether she intends to pursue abortion-related prosecutions.
By restricting funding and police resources, El Paso’s proposed measure could reduce the chance of prosecutions at the local level, but that doesn’t mean city residents would be immune from prosecution.
“There’s nothing saying that the statewide office couldn’t also take these cases,” said Todd Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Even if the proposal passes, “there is not going to be any abortion within the city that is legal,” Curry said. “But you’ll probably more safe … because the city would be at the very minimum saying, ‘we’re not going to investigate that as a crime.’”
Annello agreed. “I can’t say that everyone in El Paso (will be) protected. I can’t promise 100% that nothing will happen to you.”
The proposed measure “is so little, so limited,” she added. “But it is all we have, and people, I think, are grateful just for that, which is nice to see.”
Annello’s agenda item is modeled off a proposed resolution drafted by Austin City Council member and attorney Chito Vela following the leaked draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s ruling in early May. Annello said she began collaborating with Austin City Council member Vanessa Fuentes, the resolution’s co-sponsor, last Friday – the day the Supreme Court issued its opinion overturning Roe. “I woke up on Friday and was like, ‘let’s do this,’” Annello said.
On Thursday, Denton became the first Texas city to pass a similar measure. The Austin City Council is in recess, but with just one Republican council member, it is expected to pass the ordinance when it returns to session in July.
Even with these local efforts to limit criminal investigations, anyone in the United States could still sue Texans under Senate Bill 8, the state law that for nearly a year has banned abortions occuring after five to six weeks, and relied on private residents to enforce it.
And the Texas state government could impose financial penalties on El Paso and other cities that adopt measures deprioritizing abortion investigations, Curry noted, pointing to past actions by Gov. Greg Abbott to punish localities that declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants.
Curry said it was worth the risk.
“I just think we need to be honest with ourselves and say that taking this step is about the most that we can do as a local jurisdiction and isn’t going to come without probable ramifications,” he said.