How One Progressive City Is Fighting to Decriminalize Abortion
As part of a growing movement, municipalities like Austin are finding ways to protect their most vulnerable citizens in a post-Roe world.
By Mary Tuma August 15,2022
AUSTIN, TEX.—When Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion draft overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in early May, Austin City Council member José “Chito” Vela, a progressive, pro-abortion attorney, knew he had to act fast. For nine months, Texans had already been suffering under a “bounty hunter”–style six-week ban, considered the most restrictive abortion law in the country. After the demise of Roe, they would be subjected to a total “trigger ban” that carries stiff criminal penalties for Texas abortion providers, including a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison.
Vela, an immigration and criminal justice attorney for more than a decade, assembled his staff the very next day and began to brainstorm ways to help protect pregnant people in his community without directly superseding state law. The modest five-member team, shaken by the recent news, huddled in-person at the City Hall offices downtown, where anger and sadness soon transformed into problem solving, agile thinking, and focused determination. They worked well into the evening, and within 24 hours the council office had a tentative draft. As a cisgender man who would not be directly threatened by abortion bans and someone who lacked firsthand experience in reproductive rights advocacy, Vela knew it was imperative to include the input of experts who understood the legal and health realities on the ground, especially as they impact vulnerable communities. He invited several community groups to join the process—including the Austin Justice Coalition, the Lilith Fund, and Avow Texas—to ensure that the resolution’s language fell in line with the values of the reproductive justice movement.
“We can’t legalize abortion—that would get immediately struck down. So one of the first conversations we had was about decriminalization,” said Vela, “and how can we send a clear message to our police department that we want abortion crimes to be the lowest possible priority.”
That idea culminated in the Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone (GRACE) Act, a measure that directs the Austin Police Department (APD) to “deprioritize” investigations into criminal offenses related to abortion. Unanimously approved on July 21, the resolution prevents the city from making it a priority to devote its resources and personnel to support the prosecution of those who perform or receive abortions.
“It’s not an empty political statement; it’s a way to thread the needle between upholding state law and still taking action locally,” Vela told The Nation. “Every single day, cities across the nation are deciding how their police departments use and shift resources, [and] that’s within our scope of control.”
The city’s decriminalization resolution serves as an example of how progressive municipalities can help protect abortion patients and providers from draconian state laws within the boundaries of local power, a growing movement in the post-Roe world.
While Austin marks the first major metro city in Texas to pass the abortion decriminalization resolution (with smaller-sized Denton the first to officially greenlight it), a handful of Texas cities followed suit soon after, including Dallas and San Antonio (which passed the measure in part), while local coalitions in cities like Houston, Laredo, and Ft. Worth will be pushing for the resolution in the coming months. The GRACE Act is also spreading outside Texas, with cities including Nashville, Atlanta, and New Orleans passing similar resolutions. Local Progress, a national organization that coordinates with community officials to advance racial and economic justice, has worked to help municipalities across the country usher in such resolutions.
“Cities may be the last line of defense in protecting the most vulnerable in our post-Dobbs era,” said LiJia Gong, policy and legal director with Local Progress. “They play a crucial role in fighting back against the worst harms of these abortion policies at the state and federal level.”
However, it’s not a given the GRACE Act will succeed across Texas and beyond: In early July, the El Paso City Council voted against the resolution in a 4-5 decision, amid doubts about its validity under state law and manifest lack of support from the police chief. But reproductive rights advocates aren’t letting that possibility deter them, and continue to encourage cities not to give up or stop fighting for even more progress.
“NOT JUST WORDS, BUT REAL ACTION”
While the Austin resolution comes at a historic moment, it is far from the first time the progressive Austin City Council has demonstrated its support for abortion amid onerous state-led restrictions. Operating within a red state whose legislature has enacted the most virulently hostile abortion restrictions in the nation, Austin has continually shown support for reproductive health. Its pushback is fueled by the mission of reproductive rights and justice advocates in the community, who have carefully been laying the groundwork for years in the face of unrelenting state oppression.
Since the early 1970s, Austin helped buoy family planning services locally by leasing a building downtown to Planned Parenthood for the nominal fee of $1 a year. While the clinic did not provide abortion care, it offers affordable health care to about 5,000 largely low-income patients annually. Over the decades, the council has reaffirmed its support for reproductive health and condemned harmful abortion policies through a series of resolutions. But activists knew the local body had the potential for more tangible action. In 2017, advocates in Central Texas banded together to form Repro Power Austin, a coalition that would lobby local governments to protect reproductive justice policies. While abortion rights activists are always playing defense with the Republican-dominated Texas legislature, Repro Power Austin aimed to take a proactive approach at the local level, holding the liberal city accountable for its ostensible values.
“Advocates wanted Austin to be a city that really backed up its pro-abortion statements—not just in words, but in real action,” said Neesha Davé, deputy director of the Lilith Fund. “We’ve seen years of support through resolutions but wanted to see practical, on the ground measures.”
By 2019 their steadfast work gave way to the city’s unprecedented investment in logistical services for abortion access, said to be the first of its kind in the nation. Led by former city council members Delia Garza and Greg Casar, a progressive grassroots labor organizer who is now running for a spot in Texas’s 35th Congressional District, the budget measure directed around $100,000 to organizations—including Jane’s Due Process, Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, and Fund Texas Choice—that assist largely low-income residents and residents of color with travel, lodging, child care, and doula support. The council redoubled that investment in 2020 with $250,000 over two years in its historic reallocation of police department funds amid community criticism of police violence.
While state law restricts the local funds from flowing toward any group that performs abortion, the city instead worked around this by giving to those who only assisted in access. The investment has now been replicated in cities across the country, including Portland, Baltimore, and San Francisco, the National Institute for Reproductive Health told The Nation.
Following that financial commitment, the city faced a lawsuit (now at the Texas Supreme Court) from a right-wing former council member and the state’s major anti-abortion lobby group Texas Right to Life (currently on appeal), both represented by Jonathan F. Mitchell, architect of the state’s six-week ban that is enforced by private citizens. Advocates say they will not be surprised if similar legal or legislative action occurs as a result of the GRACE Act.
“THERE IS STILL ROOM HERE TO FIGHT”
When Vela’s office approached advocates like Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition and founder of the Frontera Fund, an abortion advocacy group based in the Rio Grande Valley, Gonzalez saw as it an important opportunity to highlight the intersection between criminal justice and abortion care. The resolution, she says, allows advocates to not dedicate as much time or resources on securing legal support or creating bail funds for people who may face criminalization for abortion care.
“The GRACE Act basically means APD will have to work through every traffic and littering ticket before they waste any resources on abortion-related crimes—it essentially creates a sort of red tape around enforcement,” said Gonzalez. “And it reinforces our city’s values in terms of equity and racial justice. We know that it is low-income people and people of color who are disproportionately criminalized, and so this resolution will help protect the most marginalized in our community.”
The measure, say advocates, is not only a show of support for abortion rights in a state in which all care has come to a halt, but also an expression of how reproductive rights and criminal justice advocates want to see public safety resources prioritized locally. It draws inspiration from the council’s move to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2020 (championed by former council member Casar) and expanded on by voters this year.
However, the GRACE Act does appear to have some possible limitations: For one, due to state law and the structure of its city government, the Austin City Council can only direct—not demand—that the city manager request these actions from the police department. However, Vela is cautiously optimistic that the APD, which he says is currently struggling with understaffing, will “not be eager” to invest resources into abortion-related crimes.
The resolution specifically asks that the APD refrain from storing or cataloging any data relating to “an abortion, miscarriage, or other reproductive healthcare act” or providing that information to other government agencies and surveilling or collecting information from an individual or organization with the aim of determining if an abortion has occurred. The policy does not apply in cases where “coercion or force” is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent of the health of the pregnant person seeking care.