NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: abortion battles at the local level.
From the time the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs, overturning Roe versus Wade, and making abortion a local issue, we’ve seen a lot. Ballot initiatives, amendments to state constitutions, and a variety of laws both in support of and against protection of the unborn.
But the decision to return abortion to the states doesn’t stop at the state capitol. Governments at the county, city, even the smallest communities are involved, too.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: One of those communities is the town of Bristol, right on the border between Tennessee and Virginia. The state line runs right through the middle of town. An abortion center had been on the Tennessee side of town before the Dobbs decision. When Tennessee passed a law to protect life, the center had to close. When an abortion business popped up on the Virginia side of Bristol, the town’s response sparked a conflict.
WORLD’s Life beat reporter Leah Savas explains.
LEAH SAVAS: The reaction included local governing officials looking at language for a city ordinance that would prevent that abortion facility from expanding inside of the city limits or from moving to a new location. And then there was a lawsuit from the landlords of this abortion facility who argued that the owners of the abortion facility hadn't told them that it was going to be an abortion facility. And meanwhile, all these nearby counties in Virginia near the Tennessee border, start working on different ordinances that would also prevent abortion facilities from moving into their counties. Because they see that if this abortion facility is forced out of the city of Bristol, Virginia, the next option for these abortion businesses is Washington County or Russell County right next door.
EICHER: For Board of Supervisors Chairman Saul Hernandez, the controversy is a new experience.
SAUL HERNANDEZ: “We typically deal with zoning and school funding and taxes, and providing fire and EMS services and, you know, law enforcement, you know, funding the sheriff's office and parks and recreation. So typically, we are not, you know, we don't deal with these hyper partisan, hyper political, hyper, emotional issues. But, you know, this one fell in our lap, and we had to deal with it. That's what we were elected to do.”
Back in February, Hernandez and his fellow board members evaluated an ordinance that would, quote, “facilitate the creation of attractive and harmonious community,” by changing zoning rules to prevent abortion facilities from being established within a certain distance from institutions like churches, parks, and schools. Given the layout of the town, this ruled out all available lots.
During the meeting’s public comment period, several people spoke favorably of the measure.
But others, like local attorney Heather Howard, warned the board that it was stepping into dangerous territory by taking this action.
HEATHER HOWARD: If you want to exceed your authority as a board, a local board of supervisors, when you exceed your authority, you subject our county and yourselves to a civil rights violation lawsuit. And if you think that there are not lawyers here in Washington County that will sue the pants off you, well, you are wrong.
REICHARD: WORLD’s Leah Savas explains that this isn’t an idle threat since abortion proponents claim that state law is on their side.
SAVAS: It's called the Dillon rule, which says that local governments can only legislate areas in which the state gives express authority. And the argument is that since abortion is legal through the first two trimesters in Virginia, then that's the legislature's way of saying that local governments can’t make it any different. You know, that's the legislature's way of not allowing local governments to pass these sorts of ordinances.
EICHER: But others, including Family Foundation attorney Josh Hetzler, note that it is perfectly legal for the zoning board to pass an ordinance excluding abortion businesses from setting up shop in town.
JOSH HETZLER: But on certain things local governments get to decide we're not going to have that here. Certain gambling institutions or strip clubs, that you know that they could say, we don't want them here. And so I think they could just write it out and say, you can't have abortion facilities in this county. I think the reason why that approach wasn't taken is probably as much a political consideration as anything. We've got to figure out what we have the votes to do, and what the political will is.
REICHARD: Over in New Mexico, the political will turned out to be quite different. On March 16th, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law that, according to the language of the bill, “protects access to reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare.” Governor Grisham explains her vision for New Mexico in a roundtable with Face the Nation.
Back in August, at a signing ceremony for an executive order designed to mandate access to abortion, Grisham explained her vision.
MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: As long as I'm governor, everyone in the State of New Mexico will be protected. Out of state residents seeking access will be protected. Providers will be protected and abortion is and will continue to be legal, safe and accessible, period.
EICHER: But several New Mexico towns along the border with Texas had no interest in becoming destination cities for Texans seeking abortions…and so they passed ordinances similar to those in Bristol to prevent abortion businesses from moving into their jurisdiction. The state’s response was swift.
SAVAS: The state attorney general actually filed a lawsuit against two of the counties and two of the cities over their ordinances. And then the legislature also passed a bill that prohibits public entities, like these local governments, from enforcing ordinances having to do with abortion, restricting abortion access, or preventing other cities and counties from passing other ordinances like that. And the governor signed that into law.
REICHARD: While New Mexico takes steps to require cities and counties to conform with state-level policy, dozens of other cities across the country have passed their own ordinances raising barriers to abortion businesses expanding into their jurisdictions.
SAVAS: It is interesting seeing how even these local elections that sometimes people don't pay attention to really do make a big difference on what's going to happen with your city, even on the abortion issue in certain areas.
EICHER: Leah Savas is WORLD’s Life beat reporter. If you’d like to read her article on this story, we’ve included a link to it in today’s transcript.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.
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