Abortion politics go local
Communities test out legislative solutions to abortion tourism
For as long as Saul Hernandez can remember, an abortion facility operated on the Tennessee side of Bristol, a city that straddles the state border with Virginia. Hernandez chairs the seven-member Board of Supervisors in Washington County, just outside Bristol on the Virginia side.
When the Supreme Court released its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in summer 2022, Hernandez had no idea the aftermath of the overturn of Roe v. Wade would push the abortion issue to the forefront of county board meetings.
Hernandez lives outside Bristol, Va., about a mile from Tennessee. In downtown Bristol, the state border runs down the middle of State Street. When Tennessee’s law protecting most babies from abortion starting at conception took effect in August, that line also marked where abortion businesses could and couldn’t operate in Bristol. By the time the Tennessee facility halted abortions, another facility had opened up four minutes away on the Virginia side, where abortion is legal in the first two trimesters of pregnancy. Within a few months, abortion was on the Board of Supervisors agenda in neighboring Washington County.
“Typically, we … don’t deal with these hyperpartisan, hyperpolitical, hyperemotional issues,” said Hernandez. In his role as a county supervisor, he said he typically deals with issues like broadband access, water quality, and rail trails, “But, you know, this one fell in our lap, and we had to deal with it.” In November, the board—concerned about future abortion businesses moving into its jurisdiction—passed a resolution declaring Washington a pro-life county. Three months later, it adopted a zoning ordinance restricting where abortion facilities can open.
At a February meeting, residents opposed to the zoning ordinance pointed out that no available lots fit the requirements of the new rule. Some who stepped up to the podium predicted the city would face lawsuits as a result since, under the state’s Dillon rule, local governments can only legislate areas in which the state gives express authority. Under state law, abortion is legal. But, according to Hernandez, zoning is under the purview of the Board of Supervisors.
Washington County is one of many local governments wrestling with abortion policy since the U.S. Supreme Court in Dobbs acknowledged the authority of states to pass laws regulating or restricting abortion. Some states responded to Dobbs by adding legal protections for unborn babies. Others expanded abortion access, and a handful—like Virginia—tried but failed to pass further protections for the unborn. The result has been a patchwork of laws across the country.
In some cases, small localities near the borders of pro-life states have become probable destinations for abortion businesses. The response from these small towns has magnified the ability of local citizens to influence abortion policy, but it has also exposed local governments and governing officials like Hernandez to increased political pressure.
The month before Washington County passed its pro-life resolution and started working on its ordinance language, the Bristol, Va., City Council considered zoning ordinance language drafted by attorneys from the pro-life Family Foundation of Virginia that would have prohibited any building from being used as an abortion facility. The city already had an abortion facility, and state law required the city to grandfather it in under any future rules. But the ordinance language would prevent the facility from expanding or moving to a new location within the city.
“We already have one that moved across the state line, and it is my opinion that one is too many, and I don’t want to see a second or a third,” then–Councilman Kevin Wingard, the ordinance’s primary champion, said at an Oct. 25 council meeting. The council at that meeting unanimously agreed to send the draft language to the city’s planning commission. But since then, two new members have replaced Wingard and another councilman and the planning commission hasn’t taken up the ordinance.
Erika Schanzenbach is one of the many local pro-lifers who has attended and spoken at Bristol’s city council and planning commission meetings in support of the ordinance. She started sidewalk counseling outside of the Tennessee abortion facility about a decade ago and said she hasn’t been involved in local government efforts like this before. But since October, she’s encouraged the roughly 150 people in her contact list for sidewalk counseling prayer updates to spread the word about the ordinance. “People are continuing to go to city council meetings and speak during public comment … and people are calling them and emailing them and that kind of thing to try and get them to bring it back,” she said in February. There has since been no action from the city government.
Meanwhile, the landlords of the Bristol, Va., facility sued the facility owners—one of whom is Diane Derzis, the former owner of the Mississippi abortion facility named in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. In the December lawsuit, the landlords sought to terminate the lease agreement, alleging the owners misled them about the purpose of the business and did not disclose that they would be performing abortions.
Pro-lifers in neighboring counties recognized that if Bristol, Va., successfully passed the zoning ordinance, the abortion business would start shopping for other locations outside of the city once the lease was up. “If you look at us on a map, if they need to move deeper into Virginia, after Bristol it’s Washington County and after Washington County it’s pretty much Russell County,” said Cody Jackson, co-coordinator of the Russell County Christian Coalition, a group that helped advocate for a county ordinance also passed in February. More straightforward than the Washington County ordinance, it outright prohibits abortion facilities in the county on the basis that they would increase overall crime.
Halfway across the country in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday signed into law a bill that prohibits public entities in the state from enacting legislation that could “restrict or interfere with” a person’s ability to get an abortion. It also prohibits public entities from enforcing existing ordinances or policies of this type.
Pro-abortion lawmakers introduced the legislation on Jan. 25, two days after the third New Mexico city passed an ordinance that supporters call a de facto ban on abortion. Two counties had also passed similar language, requiring abortion providers to comply with federal laws prohibiting the shipping and receiving of abortive drugs and abortion-related paraphernalia. The five localities all sit on or near the western border of Texas, where a law protecting babies from abortion starting at conception has been in place since last summer. Also in January, New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez filed a lawsuit against two of the cities and the two counties, asking the state Supreme Court to nullify the ordinances. That case is pending.
Some of the local governments in Virginia fear similar pushback from the state. The night the Washington County Board of Supervisors passed the zoning ordinance regulating abortion facilities, local attorney Heather Howard told the board during public comment that passing this ordinance was beyond their authority. “When you exceed your authority, you subject our county and yourself to a civil rights violation lawsuit,” said Howard. “And if you think that there are no lawyers here in Washington County that will sue the pants off you all, you are wrong.”
Language like that has Saul Hernandez worried. After the board first took up the ordinance in November, a Charlottesville, Va., paper dismissed the board as “all-male, all-white.” The editorial called Hernandez a Christian nationalist due to comments he made during the meeting about how his Christian worldview informed his decisions on the board.
“I was born in Venezuela. My dad’s from the Canary Islands,” Hernandez told WORLD.
After that, people angry about the ordinance started sending Hernandez “nasty emails,” he said, some making physical threats. He turned down interview requests from large national news organizations. Some of the pushback, he said, has been scary, and he feels like he has to watch his back. But he’s confident in his decision to support the ordinance.
“Typically these issues don’t come up, but it did come up,” said Hernandez. “And I thought it was important enough to engage. … I think I did what I thought was in the best interest of my community.”
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