How One Progressive City Is Fighting to Decriminalize Abortion

AUSTIN, TEX.—When Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion draft overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in early May, Austin City Council member José “Chito” Vela, a progressive, pro-abortion attorney, knew he had to act fast. For nine months, Texans had already been suffering under a “bounty hunter”–style six-week ban, considered the most restrictive abortion law in the country. After the demise of Roe, they would be subjected to a total “trigger ban” that carries stiff criminal penalties for Texas abortion providers, including a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison.

Vela, an immigration and criminal justice attorney for more than a decade, assembled his staff the very next day and began to brainstorm ways to help protect pregnant people in his community without directly superseding state law. The modest five-member team, shaken by the recent news, huddled in-person at the City Hall offices downtown, where anger and sadness soon transformed into problem solving, agile thinking, and focused determination. They worked well into the evening, and within 24 hours the council office had a tentative draft. As a cisgender man who would not be directly threatened by abortion bans and someone who lacked firsthand experience in reproductive rights advocacy, Vela knew it was imperative to include the input of experts who understood the legal and health realities on the ground, especially as they impact vulnerable communities. He invited several community groups to join the process—including the Austin Justice Coalition, the Lilith Fund, and Avow Texas—to ensure that the resolution’s language fell in line with the values of the reproductive justice movement.

“We can’t legalize abortion—that would get immediately struck down. So one of the first conversations we had was about decriminalization,” said Vela, “and how can we send a clear message to our police department that we want abortion crimes to be the lowest possible priority.”

That idea culminated in the Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone (GRACE) Act, a measure that directs the Austin Police Department (APD) to “deprioritize” investigations into criminal offenses related to abortion. Unanimously approved on July 21, the resolution prevents the city from making it a priority to devote its resources and personnel to support the prosecution of those who perform or receive abortions.

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