As the Supreme Court takes up cases involving Texas' restrictive abortion law and Mississippi’s legislation that directly challenges Roe v. Wade, local governments on their own have been steadily passing laws that ban abortion.
Municipal abortion bans have more than doubled since the start of 2021, according to Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, the group that has spearheaded the effort, as well as abortion rights advocates.
One of the latest local governments to do so is Mason, Ohio, a city of around 34,000 in the state’s southwest corner. The city council late last month approved legislation criminalizing abortion, even though there are no abortion clinics in Mason.
Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said the current political climate surrounding abortion is unlike anything she’s ever seen in her 20 years of work on protecting abortion rights.
“It's a particularly troubling time, and it's going to have a particularly harmful impact, especially on some of our most vulnerable communities,” Miller said.
The making of a movement
The small town of Waskom, Texas, was the first place Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life of East Texas, championed a local abortion ban. Since the Waskom ban was passed in 2019, his group has backed municipal ordinances opposing the procedure in dozens of towns across the country.
"For so long, we have focused on our state capitals and our nation's capital, thinking that was the be-all, end-all," Dickson said. "We've neglected our local government."
The ordinances have a twist that has largely protected them from court challenges. Instead of putting the burden of enforcing an abortion ban on city officials, private citizens can sue residents who have either had an abortion or helped someone have the procedure.
The same novel legal strategy is at the heart of S.B. 8, the restrictive Texas abortion law that was argued before the Supreme Court on Monday.
Texas asked the high court to block a lawsuit brought in federal court by abortion clinics in Texas against S.B. 8, which bans abortion after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, about six weeks into a pregnancy. Justices will also hear arguments next month over Mississippi legislation banning most abortions after 15 weeks, a direct challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
In Ohio, Lori Viars, vice president of Warren County Right to Life, said these municipal bans also provide an alternative to the policies of President Joe Biden’s administration, which last month, through the Justice Department, asked the Supreme Court to put a hold on S.B. 8 in Texas.
“It's exciting for pro-lifers because we're not too happy about what's going on at the federal level,” Viars said. “It just seems like the whole world is on fire, so if we can do something locally, that's encouraging.”
From capitals to city halls
Municipal governments have become willing to take on a debate that was once left to the state and national levels, albeit most frequently in small population centers.
Nearly half the municipalities that have passed the bans have less than 1,000 residents, according to census data. Lubbock, Texas, stands out as the largest city to pass a municipal abortion ban with an estimated population of nearly 260,000 residents. And more could soon be to come, including one in London, Ohio.
Ariana Ybarra, an organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said these municipal bans are just another tactic for anti-abortion activists to attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“People have been just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks,” Ybarra said. “This is just the next form of that.”