Vela, an immigration and felony justice lawyer for greater than a decade, assembled his employees the very subsequent day and commenced to brainstorm methods to assist defend pregnant individuals in his neighborhood with out instantly superseding state regulation. The modest five-member staff, shaken by the latest information, huddled in-person on the Metropolis Corridor places of work downtown, the place anger and unhappiness quickly reworked into downside fixing, agile considering, and centered willpower. They labored properly into the night, and inside 24 hours the council workplace had a tentative draft. As a cisgender man who wouldn’t be instantly threatened by abortion bans and somebody who lacked firsthand expertise in reproductive rights advocacy, Vela knew it was crucial to incorporate the enter of specialists who understood the authorized and well being realities on the bottom, particularly as they affect weak communities. He invited a number of neighborhood teams to affix the method—together with the Austin Justice Coalition, the Lilith Fund, and Avow Texas—to make sure that the decision’s language fell in step with the values of the reproductive justice motion.
“We are able to’t legalize abortion—that might get instantly struck down. So one of many first conversations we had was about decriminalization,” mentioned Vela, “and the way can we ship a transparent message to our police division that we would like abortion crimes to be the bottom potential precedence.”
That concept culminated within the Guarding the Proper to Abortion Look after Everybody (GRACE) Act, a measure that directs the Austin Police Division (APD) to “deprioritize” investigations into felony offenses associated to abortion. Unanimously accredited on July 21, the decision prevents town from making it a precedence to commit its sources and personnel to help the prosecution of those that carry out or obtain abortions.
“It’s not an empty political assertion; it’s a option to thread the needle between upholding state regulation and nonetheless taking motion regionally,” Vela informed The Nation. “Each single day cities throughout the nation are deciding how their police departments use and shift sources, [and] that’s inside our scope of management.”
The town’s decriminalization decision serves for instance of how progressive municipalities may help defend abortion sufferers and suppliers from draconian state legal guidelines throughout the boundaries of native energy, a rising motion within the post-Roe world.
Whereas Austin marks the primary main metro metropolis in Texas to go the abortion decriminalization decision (with smaller-sized Denton the primary to formally greenlight it), a handful of Texas cities adopted go well with quickly after, together with Dallas and San Antonio (which handed the measure partially), whereas native coalitions in cities like Houston, Laredo, and Ft. Price are pushing for the decision within the coming months. The GRACE Act can be spreading exterior Texas, with cities together with Nashville, Atlanta, and New Orleans passing comparable resolutions. Native Progress, a nationwide group that coordinates with neighborhood officers to advance racial and financial justice, has labored to assist municipalities throughout the nation usher in such resolutions.
“Cities stands out as the final line of protection in defending probably the most weak in our post-Dobbs period,” mentioned LiJia Gong, coverage and authorized director with Native Progress. “They play an important function in combating again in opposition to the worst harms of those abortion insurance policies on the state and federal degree.”
Nonetheless, it’s not a given the GRACE Act will succeed throughout Texas and past: In early July, the El Paso Metropolis Council voted in opposition to the decision in a 4-5 determination, fearing state legality in addition to lack of help from their police chief. However reproductive rights advocates aren’t letting that chance deter them, and proceed to encourage cities not to surrender or cease combating for much more progress.
“Not Simply Phrases, However Actual Motion”
Whereas the Austin decision comes at a historic second, it’s removed from the primary time the progressive Austin Metropolis Council has exemplified its help for abortion amid onerous state-led restrictions. Working inside a purple state whose legislature has enacted probably the most virulently hostile abortion restrictions within the nation, Austin has regularly proven help for reproductive well being. Its pushback is fueled by the mission of reproductive rights and justice advocates locally, who’ve fastidiously been laying the groundwork for years within the face of unrelenting state oppression.
For the reason that early Seventies, Austin helped buoy household planning companies regionally by leasing a constructing downtown to Deliberate Parenthood for the nominal price of $1 a yr. Whereas the clinic didn’t present abortion care, it affords reasonably priced well being care to about 5,000 largely low-income sufferers yearly. Over the many years, the council has reaffirmed its help for reproductive well being and condemned dangerous abortion insurance policies by way of a sequence of resolutions. However activists knew the native physique had the potential for extra tangible motion. In 2017, advocates in Central Texas banded collectively to type Repro Energy Austin, a coalition that might foyer native governments to guard reproductive justice insurance policies. Whereas abortion rights activists are all the time taking part in protection with the Republican-dominated Texas legislature, Repro Energy Austin aimed to take a proactive strategy on the native degree, holding the liberal metropolis accountable for its ostensible values.
“Advocates needed Austin to be a metropolis that actually backed up its pro-abortion statements—not simply in phrases, however in actual motion,” mentioned Neesha Davé, deputy director of the Lilith Fund. “We’ve seen years of help by way of resolutions however needed to see sensible, on the bottom measures.”
By 2019 their steadfast work gave option to town’s unprecedented funding in logistical companies for abortion entry, mentioned to be the primary of its sort within the nation. Led by former metropolis council members Delia Garza and Greg Casar, a progressive grassroots labor organizer who’s now operating for a spot in Texas’s thirty fifth Congressional District, the price range measure directed round $100,000 to organizations—together with Jane’s Due Course of, Mama Sana Vibrant Lady, and Fund Texas Alternative—that help largely low-income residents and residents of coloration with journey, lodging, little one care, and doula help. The council redoubled that funding in 2020 with $250,000 over two years in its historic reallocation of police division funds amid neighborhood criticism of police violence.
Whereas state regulation restricts the native funds from flowing towards any group that performs abortion, town as an alternative labored round this by giving to those that solely assisted in entry. The funding has now been replicated in cities throughout the nation, together with Portland, Baltimore, and San Francisco, the Nationwide Institute for Reproductive Well being informed The Nation.
Following that monetary dedication, town confronted a lawsuit (now on the Texas Supreme Court docket) from a former right-wing council member and the state’s main anti-abortion foyer group Texas Proper to Life (presently on enchantment), each represented by Jonathan F. Mitchell, architect of the state’s six-week ban that’s enforced by personal residents. Advocates say they won’t be stunned if comparable authorized or legislative motion happens on account of the GRACE Act.
“There Is Nonetheless Room Right here to Battle”
When Vela’s workplace approached advocates like Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition and founding father of the Frontera Fund, an abortion advocacy group based mostly within the Rio Grande Valley, Gonzalez noticed because it an essential alternative to spotlight the intersection between felony justice and abortion care. The decision, she says, permits advocates to not dedicate as a lot time or sources on securing authorized help or creating bail funds for individuals who could face criminalization for abortion care.
“The GRACE Act mainly means APD should work by way of each visitors and littering ticket earlier than they waste any sources on abortion-related crimes—it basically creates a form of purple tape round enforcement,” mentioned Gonzalez. “And it reinforces our metropolis’s values when it comes to fairness and racial justice. We all know that it’s low-income individuals and other people of coloration who’re disproportionately criminalized, and so this decision will assist defend probably the most marginalized in our neighborhood.”
The measure, say advocates, just isn’t solely a present of help for abortion rights in a state through which all care has come to a halt, but in addition an expression of how reproductive rights and felony justice advocates need to see public security sources prioritized regionally. It attracts inspiration from the council’s transfer to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana in 2020 (championed by former Council member Casar) and expanded on by voters this yr.
Nonetheless, the GRACE Act does seem to have some potential limitations: For one, because of state regulation and the construction of its metropolis authorities, the Austin Metropolis Council can solely direct—not demand—that town supervisor request these actions from the police division. Nonetheless, Vela is cautiously optimistic that the APD, which he says is presently combating understaffing, will “not be keen” to take a position sources into abortion-related crimes.
The decision particularly asks that the APD chorus from storing or cataloging any information regarding “an abortion, miscarriage, or different reproductive healthcare act” or offering that info to different authorities businesses and surveiling or gathering info from a person or group with the purpose of figuring out if an abortion has occurred. The coverage doesn’t apply in instances the place “coercion or drive” is used in opposition to the pregnant individual, or in instances involving conduct criminally negligent of the well being of the pregnant individual looking for care.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether or not the decision will defend abortion funds, who haven’t solely ceased operations due to state legal guidelines but in addition face authorized assaults from anti-choice teams.
However, the council finds a robust ally in Travis County District Legal professional José Garza, one among almost 90 DAs throughout the nation—together with a minimum of 4 others in Texas—who’ve vowed to not prosecute abortion-related crimes. The previous head of the Staff Protection Challenge, a progressive statewide group that advocates for labor rights and immigrants, Garza says abortion prosecutions would wrongly divert sources away from the enforcement of great crimes, and will result in the re-traumatization and criminalization of victims of sexual violence.
“For me, it was a very easy determination, and the best determination for our county,” Garza informed The Nation. “The [Dobbs] ruling is a radical one, and the very definition of activism in our authorized system however most of all, it’s a harmful one that may make us much less protected and result in extra hurt. I are not looking for ladies in our neighborhood struggling or dying at residence as a result of they’re too afraid to go to the physician. My number-one precedence is the well being and security of our neighborhood, and I’ll use my discretion as district lawyer to keep away from preventable hurt and tragedy.”
Garza and different DAs are up in opposition to Texas’s aggressively anti-choice Legal professional Normal Ken Paxton, who has expressed his keen help for prosecuting abortion suppliers. In an advisory, Paxton writes that his workplace “will help any native prosecutor who pursues felony prices,” in opposition to abortion care. He additionally recommends that native prosecutors not wait till the state’s set off ban takes impact in late August however to “instantly pursue felony prosecutions,” based mostly on antiquated, Twenties-era Texas state legal guidelines.
Nonetheless, Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and authorized director with the authorized advocacy group If/When/How, stresses that district attorneys must be empowered to say that criminalization of abortion sufferers just isn’t permissible until explicitly licensed by regulation.
“Simply because Roe has fallen it doesn’t give prosecutors the authority to incarcerate sufferers for abortion,” mentioned Diaz-Tello. “That authority would solely come from legislative change, and legislators are accountable to their constituents. It’s essential to not concede this floor—there may be nonetheless room right here to struggle.”
Within the subsequent legislative session, conservatives have vowed to suggest methods to avoid prosecutors unwilling to go after abortion suppliers, together with permitting district attorneys in different cities to implement abortion legal guidelines in different elements of the state. Nonetheless, Garza and native advocates stay hopeful that such laws wouldn’t survive, declaring that the Texas Court docket of Prison Appeals, the best court docket within the state of Texas for felony instances, and the Texas Structure make it “extremely clear” that the one entity that has authority to pursue prosecutions in a neighborhood is the workplace of the district lawyer.
Regardless of inevitable pushback from the best wing, Vela and advocates stress that the decriminalization decision is reflective of Austin’s values.
“That is one thing that the individuals of Austin finally need. It’s deeply rooted in our values as a progressive neighborhood,” mentioned Vela. “I believe this decision helps give hope and optimism to our residents that change is feasible and the struggle to guard entry will proceed and can go on.”