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Austin plans to effectively decriminalize abortion if Supreme Court overturns 'Roe'

A crowd holds signs saying "Keep Abortion Legal" in front of the Texas Capitol.
Patricia Lim
Hundreds of demonstrators rally at the Texas Capitol on May 14 after a draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked.

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An Austin City Council member is proposing to shelter residents from a Texas law criminalizing nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturns the case establishing a national right to the procedure.

Council Member Chito Vela, who was elected earlier this year to represent parts of North Austin, says he will bring forward an ordinance that directs police to deprioritize arresting people for seeking or providing abortions.

The measure, he said, would also restrict the City of Austin from spending money to investigate or catalogue abortions.

“I don’t want an abortion crimes task force being created. I don’t want an abortion crimes database to be created,” Vela told KUT. He said he believes the majority of his colleagues are in support, and so it will pass. “There should be no proactive investigation of any alleged abortion crimes.”

Texas has a "trigger law" banning abortions if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. The law prohibits the procedure at any point in a pregnancy except if the woman’s life is in danger or she risks losing “major bodily function.” Passed during last year’s legislative session, the law makes performing an abortion a felony, and doctors could face life in prison and fines up to $100,000.

“Once Roe v. Wade is overturned we want to make sure our pro-life laws are fully enforced,” Rebecca Parma, senior legislative associate for the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, told KUT. “This highlights the need for civil enforcement,” she said. Instead of relying on police to enforce a ban, current Texas law empowers citizens to sue people who have helped a woman get an abortion.

A spokesperson said the city and its police department are "prepared to take the steps necessary to implement this resolution upon passage by City Council.” Regardless of council votes, Chief Joseph Chacon has the final say on police policy.

The city has done this kind of legal maneuvering before. In 2020, Austin City Council members voted to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Then-Police Chief Brian Manley refused, though, saying his officers would continue to follow state law. Six months later, he reversed his decision.

Vela said the ordinance, which would not be voted on until there is a final decision from the Supreme Court, is written to avoid legal intervention from the state. His office would not share a copy of the proposal, saying it was subject to changes.

“This was crafted in such a way as to not conflict with state law,” Vela said. Currently, the state bans abortions around five or six weeks into a pregnancy.

“We’re not, for example, legalizing abortion in contradiction of state law. We’re not saying that the crimes cannot be investigated, for example, by DPS or some state authority,” Vela said. “We’re just saying that within the City of Austin this type of crime would not be a priority for our police department.”

KUT reached out to the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who likely would challenge the ordinance if it passes, but did not hear back by deadline.

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Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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