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A Texas county that borders New Mexico is the latest to consider an abortion travel ban

By Jayme Lozano Carver, The Texas Tribune

A Texas county that borders New Mexico is the latest to consider an abortion travel ban” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUBBOCK — A rural Texas county that borders New Mexico is expected to consider a proposal Thursday that would make it illegal to travel on its roads seeking an abortion.

The proposed blockade in Cochran County, home to about 2,500 people, is the latest example of a Texas county attempting to restrict access to its highways to certain people — a move abortion-rights activists and legal scholars say is unconstitutional and meant to stoke fear.

According to media reports, at least two Texas counties have approved such bans. Cochran County would likely be the first county that borders a state where abortion is legal to put such a rule in place.

Since Texas instituted the strictest abortion laws in the country in September 2021, thousands of Texans have traveled to New Mexico, as well as Kansas, Colorado and other states, to terminate their pregnancies. Several Texas abortion clinics, pushed out by what is now a near-total ban, have reopened in New Mexico — and been followed by anti-abortion activists.

“You may believe this isn’t going to affect you because it’s in some tiny little town you’re never going to drive through,” said Wendy Davis, a former state senator who is now a senior adviser at Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “This is an effort, one by one by one, to create a statewide ban against travel to other states, literally creating a reproductive prison in the state of Texas.”

Members of the Cochran County Commissioners Court were not available as of publication. In a phone call with the Texas Tribune, Judge Pat Henry, the county’s elected executive, said he was asked to put it on the agenda by a commissioner.

Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right To Life of East Texas, an anti-abortion group that has lobbied for similar local ordinances across the state, said he believes they’ll hold up in court.

“The abortion trafficking ordinances do not interfere with the right to travel,” he wrote in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The ordinances only impose penalties on those who are using roads within the county to traffic pregnant mothers across state lines for the purpose of an abortion.”

Dickson’s group is circulating a letter signed by 20 state lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, that calls on local governments to put these policies into place.

[Texas highways are the next anti-abortion target. One town is resisting.]

While it is a small county that is about 60 miles west of Lubbock, its location could be crucial for pregnant people traveling through. There are three state highways that cross through Cochran County — highways 114, 214 and 125.

Nevermind that Texas has one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the U.S., the fight over access has continued with travel ordinances. Proponents behind these ordinances are following a familiar playbook, which rely on local governments to pass policies, creating a dubious legal patchwork that could lead to court fights.

“The Supreme Court has given a lot of protection to the right to travel from state to state in a lot of prior decisions,” said South Texas College of Law professor Charles “Rocky” Rhodes.

Mitchell County, in West Texas, and Goliad County, near South Texas, passed similar ordinances earlier this year prohibiting traveling for abortions on county roads. Both rely on residents bringing civil action against others they believe violated the ordinance.

[Even after Planned Parenthood stopped performing abortions, Texas is still trying to shut it down]

Rhodes said there are two aspects that present problems to this ordinance — the constitutional protection to travel and how the ordinance would be enforced. In civil cases, Rhodes said the person suing typically has to show how they’ve been personally injured by the other party.

There was a similar provision in Texas’ 2021 ban — often referred to as Senate Bill 8 — on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy that is enforced entirely through private lawsuits. So far, Rhodes said, Texas courts have rejected these lawsuits, saying the people who brought the test cases were unable to sue because they had not been directly impacted by the prohibited abortions

“That issue is winding through the Texas appellate system right now,” Rhodes said, referring to similar laws including the state law that allows people to sue fellow Texans if they seek an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.

Rhodes continued, “So with respect to these two problems, you really have to understand these ordinances more in terms of trying to scare people, rather than something that will be able to be enforced in court.”

Llano, a Central Texas city about 75 miles northwest of Austin, previously debated the so-called abortion trafficking ordinance, but the suggestion was temporarily tabled by the city council. In Chandler, about 13 miles west of Tyler, council members held off on passing the ordinance because of legal concerns.

The Washington Post reported that Chandler council member Janeice Lunsford said, “I believe we’re making a mistake if we do this.”

With the right to travel being constitutionally protected, Davis said these ordinances are unenforceable, and they are meant to confuse and create fear.

“It’s kind of a joke to believe that somehow, a person would know that someone traveling down a roadway beside them was on their way to get an abortion,” Davis said. “The idea that we would set up some kind of checkpoints to determine why someone was traveling through a local community is just absurd.”

Davis said despite the rules being unenforceable, they still have consequences. More rules and rhetoric could push away medical professionals and intimidate pregnant people.

“We are losing OB-GYNs who were in our state and fear practicing here in the future because of absurd extremists,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, even people who want to be pregnant and need help in having healthy pregnancies are going to lose the medical access they need.”

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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