Council Accelerates Decision to Decriminalize Abortion in Austin: A GRACE Moment – News
Protests in Austin by abortion rights supporters, Friday, June 24 (Photo by John Anderson)
Council members Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes called for a special meeting of the Austin City Council to approve a resolution, drafted by Vela, that attempts to effectively decriminalize abortion in Austin. Planning for the meeting is still underway, but it could take place on July 19 or 21. The resolution is virtually certain to win the approval of a Board of 10 Democrats and one Republican.
Vela originally intended to add the item to the agenda for the Council’s July 26 business session (the Council historically does not meet for most of July), but the resolution was gained new urgency following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationthe Mississippi case that the court’s anti-choice majority used to formally overturn the 1973 ruling Roe vs. Wade decision.
“Don’t make a mistake, [the D.A.’s] Office has absolutely seen victims of crime as young as 10 impregnated by their rapist. I can tell you that we had a 10 year old who got pregnant. – Neva Fernandez, Director of Victim Services for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office
Most abortions have been illegal in Texas since last September, when Senate Bill 8 took effect; this legislation allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe to have performed or “aiding and abetting” an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. But the Texas Legislature also passed a “trigger law” designed to ban all abortion care from the moment of conception, with no exceptions for rape or incest, once SCOTUS issues its final judgment. in Dobbs (usually about a month after the notice is posted). Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said previous laws Roe vs. Wade (itself a challenge to a Texas law) could immediately criminalize all abortions, rather than just subjecting them to civil penalties under SB 8. However, the ACLU of Texas prevailed in a Tuesday hearing in the Harris County and obtained a temporary restraining order against Paxton.
The local resolution is known as the GRACE Act (Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone). He recommends that the Austin Police Department avoid devoting personnel and resources to investigating a person obtaining an abortion or providers who perform them. Specifically, it asks the ODA to refrain from storing or cataloging any information relating to “an abortion, miscarriage or any other reproductive health act”; provide information to other government agencies regarding the same actions; and monitoring or collecting information from an individual or organization for the purpose of determining whether an abortion has occurred.
Exceptions are described in the resolution. APD could share information relating to an abortion if it could be used either by a patient to “advocate [their] right to abortion care” or by a provider to defend their right to provide care. Similarly, information could be collected by the DPA and shared with other agencies in the event that a person has been coerced into obtaining an abortion, if a provider performing an abortion has been suspected of criminal negligence. or if abortion is not the crime under investigation, but is related to the investigation of another crime.
Ultimately, the resolution is an attempt to direct police policy rather than replace state law with local ordinance. But even in this regard, the predominantly liberal Council is limited in what it can do. State law prohibits city officials from ordering police chiefs to enact certain policies, so the GRACE Act can only request that Chief of Police Joe Chacon follow the example of the resolution. The tactic is similar to that used in 2020 by Vela’s predecessor, Greg Casar, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, a move later approved (and expanded) by voters in May 2022. As was the case in At the time, the GRACE Act held that the proposed policy reflected the community values of Austin as a whole.
Already, Vela and Fuentes’ resolution has received public support from Mayor Steve Adler, Pro Tem Mayor Alison Alter and CMs Paige Ellis, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool; CMs Natasha Harper-Madison and Ann Kitchen are almost certain to vote for him. Only the vote of the Council’s only Republican, Mackenzie Kelly, remains unstable. Reached by phone Friday, Kelly told us she was still reading the resolution to determine how she would vote. (Kelly was the only no to vote on a different resolution to protect reproductive rights, introduced by Fuentes and approved by the Board on May 19.)
Kelly said she was concerned about the legality of the resolution and that tasking staff with working on it, in addition to the mountain of Council resolutions they are already working on, may not be the best use of time. Staff. “I don’t want the city council to put [staff] on issues where they cannot be effective,” Kelly told us. But when asked directly if she considers herself pro-choice, the Northwest Austin CM gave a vague answer. “I would say I’m pro-adoption,” Kelly told Us. , noting that members of his family have been adopted. “Life is a beautiful thing,” she said, adding that the whole debate around reproductive rights was “tricky.”
No matter what Kelly thinks about abortion, the resolution will pass with or without her support. Yet, as Vela wrote in an FAQ document posted on the Council’s bulletin board, “There will always be significant legal risk involved in any abortion procedure in Texas – we can only try to mitigate the legal risk , not to eliminate it altogether.” Other law enforcement agencies could still investigate a person or provider for performing an abortion.
The city attorney’s office is generally wary of council action that will result in the city being prosecuted, which the GRACE Act will certainly do (perhaps as part of SB 8’s vigilante justice system). Chacon will also need time to review the resolution and develop legally sound language (in his view) to use in revising the ODA General Orders; it took former chief Brian Manley six months to do that regarding marijuana law enforcement. The the Chronicle contacted APD for comment on the resolution; Chacon refused.
Regardless of how the APD proceeds, Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza said he will not prosecute people who perform or obtain abortions. (Travis County Judge Andy Brown said Monday, June 27 that he was considering making a similar resolution in the Court of Commissioners asking Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez not to use any of the resources of his office to investigate abortion-related offences.)
Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza announced he will not prosecute cases against people who perform or obtain abortions (Photo by Austin Sanders)
“Making abortion a crime will not end abortion,” Garza told reporters Monday outside the Ronald Earle Building on West 11th Street. “It will simply end safe abortions for too many people by threatening women who seek abortion services… Here in Travis County, we will not criminalize personal health care decisions. you need medical assistance, I implore you to seek it.”
According to the National Rape, Abuse & Incest Network, approximately 1 in 9 girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused or assaulted by an adult. Among these girls, about 34% are under 12 years old. Neva Fernandez, director of victim services for the district attorney’s office, offered a stark picture of what the world could look like for survivors of sexual assault in Texas as the state nears a total ban on sexual assault. ‘abortion.
“Make no mistake,” Fernandez began, “this office has absolutely seen victims of crime as young as 10 impregnated by their rapist. I can tell you that a 10-year-old got pregnant.” Fernandez said the case was pursued and the girl was able to get an abortion; a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office declined to provide further information on the case out of respect for the victim’s privacy.
“It’s important to understand that this is not a happy ending for this child,” Fernandez said. “Each step was additional trauma to the child’s body and mind. However, access to a safe abortion allowed this girl to regain control of her body.” But in a future Texas where pregnancies resulting from rape or incest cannot be terminated, the young girl Fernandez refers to would have been forced to carry the pregnancy to term. “The little girl who should eat spaghetti in the school cafeteria and play tag during recess will be forced to leave school at 10, 11, 12 to carry a baby in her little child’s body”, Fernandez said.
Garza’s policy cannot stop law enforcement from arresting people for obtaining or performing an abortion, just as his policy of not prosecuting cases of drug possession under 1 gram has not prevented officers and deputies from bringing in low-level, non-violent offenders. To prevent people from being incarcerated on charges that will later be dropped, Travis County District Attorney and Delia Garza have implemented “arrest review” policies that require officers to report to attorneys for either office to review any probable cause affidavit. It is unclear whether a similar policy could be applied to those charged with providing or supporting abortion care which is now a felony but the district and county attorney will not prosecute.
See the draft abortion resolution at assets.austintexas.gov/austincouncilforum/E0-20220624105310.pdf.