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Crowds gather in Foley Square for a march in New York City on October 2, 2021. (Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

'Austin Will Not Be Complicit': Texas City Has Plan to Defend Abortion Rights

Texas residents seeking to end pregnancies could be "subjected to first-degree felony charges—up to 99 years in jail—and that's just absolutely unacceptable," said Council Member Chito Vela.

Jessica Corbett

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to reverse Roe v. Wade, the Austin City Council is working on a resolution to help protect abortion patients and providers in the Texas city—a potential model for other U.S. communities where ending a pregnancy could be criminalized if the 1973 ruling is overturned.

José "Chito" Vela, an attorney who represents District 4 after winning a special election earlier this year, is leading the council's plans for the Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone (GRACE) Act, which would effectively decriminalize the procedure by directing the Austin Police Department to make alleged crimes related to abortion its lowest priority and restricting the use of city funds and staff for investigations.

"Especially in Texas, we believe the GRACE Act is the best protection we can offer to Austin residents who will be targeted by the trigger ban."

"We need them focusing on historically classic criminal activity—not politically disfavored groups that factions in the government want to harass and punish," Vela told The Guardian of local law enforcement. "That's the real core of what we're trying to do."

Vela pointed out to Politico—which first reported on the resolution Monday after revealing the Supreme Court's draft opinion on Roe earlier this month—that "this is a very real conversation where people's lives could be destroyed by these criminal prosecutions."

While some rights don't kick in until the age of 18 in Texas, the age of consent for sexual activity is 17; that is also the age at which people are automatically treated as adults in the state's criminal justice system.

"In Texas, you're an adult at 17," said Vela. "We are looking at the prospect of a 17-year-old girl who has an unplanned pregnancy and is seeking an abortion [being] subjected to first-degree felony charges—up to 99 years in jail—and that's just absolutely unacceptable."

As The Texas Tribune detailed after the Supreme Court leak:

If this draft reflects the final decision of the court, expected this summer, it would virtually eliminate abortion access in Texas. Last year, the Legislature passed a so-called "trigger law" that would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, making performing abortion a felony.

The law would make an exception only to save the life of the pregnant patient or if they risk "substantial impairment of major bodily function." Doctors could face life in prison and fines up to $100,000 if they perform abortions in violation of the law.

Texas is just one of the 26 states where abortion is expected to be criminalized due to trigger bans and other measures if Roe is overturned, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.

The Lone Star State's Republican elected officials have garnered national attention in recent years for attacks on reproductive freedom, including Senate Bill 8. Enacted last year, that law bans abortions after about six weeks—before many people know they are pregnant—without exceptions for rape or incest and turns anti-choice vigilantes into bounty hunters.

Last month in Starr County, Texas, Lizelle Herrera was arrested and charged with murder for allegedly causing "the death of an individual by self-induced abortion," though the district attorney ultimately determined that under state law, she "cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her."

The Guardian highlighted that National Advocates for Pregnant Women recently said in a brief to the Supreme Court that "since 1973, there have been more than 1,600 documented instances of women being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, detained, or forced to undergo medical interventions that would not have occurred but for their status as pregnant persons whose rights state actors assumed could be subordinated in the interest of fetal protection."

A spokesperson for Vela told Common Dreams in an email Tuesday that the Texas capital "needs the GRACE Act because it's the best possible protection we can offer to Austin residents who need abortion care. It is an obvious violation of everyone's human rights to ban medical procedures based on a political or religious position, and the city of Austin will not be complicit in Texas's war on women's bodies."

The Austin City Council—which is made up of 10 district representatives plus the mayor—has in recent years passed various measures related to reproductive rights in the liberal city that leans heavily Democratic, including three resolutions approved earlier this month.

As for the GRACE Act, Vela's spokesperson said that "we're incredibly grateful for the support of fellow Council Members Vanessa Fuentes and Paige Ellis, who have committed to co-sponsoring this measure when we are ready to submit it for a vote."

"We will submit the GRACE Act as soon as possible after the Roe v. Wade decision is finalized," she explained. "We need to see the decision before we submit the resolution because we need to ensure it is as responsive as possible to the text of the SCOTUS decision."

GOP state lawmakers have ramped up their already-unprecedented assault on reproductive freedom this year ahead of the anticipated high court decision, including Louisiana legislators considering a bill that would criminalize abortion as homicide as well as Oklahoma outlawing nearly all abortions and—like Texas—deputizing private citizens to enforce the ban.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, though all House Democrats except Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar last year approved the Women's Health Protection Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has repeatedly joined with Republicans in the evenly split upper chamber to defend the filibuster and block the bill that would codify Roe.

Politico noted Monday that "Radnor Township in Pennsylvania, where abortion is likely to remain legal because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto any Republican-passed bans, recently approved an ordinance protecting abortion rights."

Greer Donley, a University of Pittsburgh Law School professor specializing in reproductive healthcare, told the outlet that "we live in a state where abortion is going to remain legal in the short term, at least after Roe goes down. But that's because our Legislature's totally divided."

"We currently have a Democratic governor, but our Legislature's red, so they wouldn't be able to pass anything," she said. "When you're in a purple state, cities might have an interesting role to play."

In Austin, "Council Member Vela hopes that any cities who hope to protect their citizens from red state abortion bans will take inspiration from the GRACE Act if it's helpful," his spokesperson told Common Dreams. "Especially in Texas, we believe the GRACE Act is the best protection we can offer to Austin residents who will be targeted by the trigger ban."

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