‘Evil in Washington Flooding Into Amarillo’: Abortion Travel Bans at the City Level

In Amarillo, Texas, a contentious debate over a potential travel ban touches on one of the thorniest questions in the post-Dobbs landscape—namely, what limits, if any, can be placed on interstate abortion travel.

Mark Lee Dickson (L), founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative, talks to a supporter of the petition to allow civil suits against those who transport or help someone looking for an abortion using the city roads, during a council session at Amarillo City Hall in Amarillo, Texas, on May 28, 2024. Abortion is illegal statewide in Texas, but residents in the city of Amarillo want to go a step further—banning even the use of the city’s roads by people seeking the procedure elsewhere. Dismissed as grandstanding and “extremist” by critics, such laws are legally dubious and almost impossible to enforce, yet that hasn’t stopped their proliferation across conservative locales in the United States. (Moisés Ávila / AFP via Getty Images)

Update on Thursday, June 13: The Amarillo City Council rejected a potential abortion travel ban, making Amarillo the largest conservative Texas city to reject such a policy. The Initiating Committee of Amarillo, which garnered enough signature to put the now rejected “abortion trafficking” ordinance before the City Council, now has 20 days from the date of the meeting to decide if they wish to put the matter before the voters in November.


In 2019, anti-abortion extremist Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life East Texas, launched the Texas-based Sanctuary City for the Unborn campaign aimed at outlawing abortion “one city at a time”—a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Once the state’s post-Dobbs trigger law banning abortion at conception except in cases of a “life-threatening physical condition … that imposes a risk of death or serious physical impairment” took effect, the Lone Star State effectively became a geographically unified “sanctuary for the unborn.”

This privileging of the fetus over the pregnant person is underscored by Texas’ “hostile abortion landscape, [which] has made physicians afraid to rely on the exception,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), given the risk of a life sentence for ‘getting it wrong.’

This grim reality was reinforced by the May 31 Texas Supreme Court decision in Zurawski v. Texas, a case brought by CRR on behalf of two OB-GYNs and 20 pregnant women “who were denied abortion care despite risks to their health, lives, and future fertility” to clarify when a doctor can provide abortion care without fear of incarceration. The court dismissed their claims, effectively “eras[ing] the women we represent as though their pain and suffering didn’t exist or matter,” said CRR CEO Nancy Northup. It also ruled that abortions are prohibited in situations where a fetus has a lethal condition unless the pregnant patient also faces a life-threatening condition. 

Plugging the ‘Trafficking Loophole’ in Texas’ Abortion Law

However, as Dickson sees it, the battle for Texas’ unborn children is not over—despite the fact that the state’s laws are among the strictest in the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Comparing his work to the anti-slavery cause, Dickson is intent on plugging what he considers to be a major loophole in the law—namely, that it does not expressly ban travel to states where abortion is legal. As he explained:

“We still have … abortion states. … Just like we saw in years past during the times of slavery, there were free states and there were slave states. We’re seeing this problem that we have abortion states in America.”

Dickson’s ultimate goal is a national abortion ban. And his recent decision to add travel bans to his sanctuary city ordinances to deter cross-border abortion travel from Texas into the “abortion states” of New Mexico or Colorado, moves us closer to his abolitionist dream of an abortion-free union.

Just like we saw in years past during the times of slavery, there were free states and there were slave states. We’re seeing this problem that we have abortion states in America.

Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Right to Life East Texas

To date, at least 13 Texas locales have enacted travel bans to prevent the use of their roads for abortion-related travel. Rather than being enforceable by governmental officials, these measures are enforceable by private individuals, or “bounty hunters,” who are empowered to bring civil suits for monetary damages against those providing (or possibly otherwise facilitating) such transportation. Abortion seekers are immune from suit.  

‘Against the Will of the Unborn Child’

Dickson rejects the use of the term “travel ban.” Instead, his preferred term is “trafficking ordinance,” because, as he sees it, even if the pregnant woman is not being forced across state lines by what he has referred to as “baby murdering cartels,” the “unborn child is always taken against their will.”

This linguistic sleight of hand can also be read as an effort to insulate these measures from constitutional challenges based on the protected right to travel—which, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out in his concurring opinion in Dobbs, does not permit preventing a person from state A from traveling to state B for purposes of obtaining a lawful abortion. 

For the most part, Dickson-style travel bans have been enacted in small conservative communities without a great deal of fanfare, although there has certainly been vocal opposition. Most recently the City Council in the tiny town of Claredon, Texas (population approximately 1,700), became one of the first locales to reject such a measure.

Capturing some of the concerns that have played out in Amarillo, Roger Estlack, publisher-editor at Claredon Enterprise, urged a “no” vote, writing that if the town “passes the Dickson ordinance, it will be just another notch in his belt” resulting in “the waste of taxpayers’ money and resources as city employees deal with the drama Dickson brings to town.”

Explaining her “no” vote, council member Eulaine McIntosh stressed that “our business is making sure our city gets water, streets to drive on, trash is taken out. … We’re not allowed to take action beyond state law, and this ordinance comes very close to overstepping state law.”

Not a ‘Slam Dunk’ Victory

The battle has been particularly heated in Amarillo, the Panhandle’s largest city. According to Dickson, the city became “ground zero” in the “national fight over abortion access” after the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine filed its lawsuit challenging the FDA’s approval of mifepristone in the Amarillo division of the Northern District of Texas. A single-judge division presided over by Trump appointee Matthew Kacsmaryk, an ardent abortion opponent. As you may recall, Kacsmaryk issued what has been described as a “junk science” ruling in the case that is saturated with anti-abortion tropes. (This case was heard by the Supreme Court in March and a decision is expected this month.)

The City Council of Amarillo first considered Dickson’s sanctuary city ordinance, with its now ubiquitous travel ban, in October of 2023. It tabled the measure to study it more carefully.

Lindsay London, a co-founder of the Amarillo Reproductive Freedom Alliance (ARFA), which was launched in July 2023 in opposition to Dickson’s ordinance, told Ms. the move was a complete surprise to Dickson, who had expected a “slam dunk” win in Amarillo given the City Council’s unabashed anti-abortion commitment. 

However, as Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley shared with Ms. in an interview, although he and the other City Council members firmly believe that their commitment to “protect everyone in the community” extends to the “baby within the womb,” they also recognize that “their jurisdiction stops at the city limits.”

Freedom to move is greatly important. And we should never be in favor of anything that would ever limit that.

Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley

Accordingly, he has no interest “in having Amarillo go beyond what is permissible under state law,” such as limiting cross-border abortion travel to a state where abortion is permitted. Mayor Cole further explained that his opposition also reflects his commitment to small government. As he elucidated in a press conference, “constitutionally, as a conservative. … We always want to protect these civil rights and right of travel, right of speech. Freedom to move is greatly important. And we should never be in favor of anything that would ever limit that.”  

‘Flaming the Ire of Anti-Abortion Advocates’

In December, the council announced it was working on an amended ordinance, which would not include the travel ban. As reported in the Texas Tribune, the “exclusion of the ordinance’s original purpose has enflamed the ire of anti-abortion advocates, and brought a new level of pressure and tension to this already heated debate in the Panhandle.” 

At the end of December, the city received a ballot petition from the Initiating Committee of Amarillo residents, who “with heavy hearts regarding the problem of abortion trafficking of unborn children … determined that the best path forward … would be to pursue the passage of an ordinance through a citizen initiative petition.” Since validated as having the legally required number of signatures, the ordinance will likely be put to the voters in November if ultimately rejected by the council.

The contentious debate over the travel ban is certainly bringing the city out of the shadows, as it touches on one of the thorniest questions in our post-Dobbs landscape.

ARFA’s London added another layer of understanding as to why proponents of the travel ban are locked in a struggle with the City Council; namely that Dickson is “deadset” on securing a victory in Amarillo. She ventured that his fidelity to this end may be rooted in the hope that a lawsuit challenging the ordinance will come before anti-abortion judge Matthew Kacsmaryk.

There has been considerable acrimony between Dickson and City Council. Trading barbs, Stanley is quoted in the Amarillo Pioneer as saying that while he appreciates his “passion for a cause we agree on, which is to protect life … Dickson is a great example of when we as a people can’t seem to get out of our own way.” 

In response, Dickson has challenged the Republican bona fides of Mayor Stanley, declaring that he sounds  “a lot like the Biden-Harris administration … in how he spoke of ‘civil liberties’ and the ‘right to travel.’”  

Dueling Ordinances

On May 28, the Amarillo City Council held a lengthy public hearing over the travel ban. Not surprisingly, the testimony of supporters was saturated with religious tropes, such as, the “Lord has positioned you for this day. … You are here by his design,” and, “the devil will forever torment both the man and the woman concerning the murder of their children.” 

Fashioning a powerful religious appeal in apparent opposition to the evils of secularism, one witness asserted that upon arriving back in Amarillo after being part of a delegation in Washington, D.C., supporting Kacsmaryk’s ruling on mifepristone, “God gave me a vision of gates opening and a flood of everything that I saw evil in Washington flooding into Amarillo.”  She implored the council that it was their duty to keep evil outside of the city gates. 

Dickson is a great example of when we as a people can’t seem to get out of our own way.

Amarillo Mayor Cole Stanley

Mark Lee Dickson (R), founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative, defends a petition to allow civil suits against those who transport or help someone looking for an abortion using the city roads, during a council session at Amarillo City Hall on May 28, 2024. (Moisés Ávila / AFP via Getty Images)

Another warned that if they failed to do so “the blood of the innocent will be on your hands.”

A number of travel ban opponents also appealed to religion.

  • One asked whether the ordinance was a “distraction from following Christ’s command to love” because “it focuses on something Jesus doesn’t even deem worth mentioning anywhere in scriptures.”
  • Another witness stressed that he “fail[ed] to see the sanctity in this ordinance that would encourage fellow citizens to tattletale on their friends and family.”
  • Another argued that support for the ordinance reflected a desire to “appease a group of religious fanatics” who seek to “impose their personal religious beliefs on everyone else,”  powerfully noting that “our forefathers came to this country to escape what we are experiencing now.” 

My scenario was horrific, but it definitely is not unique.

Amanda Zurawski to the council

Amanda Zurawski of Austin, Texas, speaks at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “The Assault on Reproductive Rights in a Post-Dobbs America,” on April 26, 2023. Zurawski experienced a pre-labor rupture which would have resulted in a miscarriage and was denied an abortion in Texas which resulted in her contracting a life-threatening sepsis condition. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Not surprisingly, however, religion was not their primary focus. Over and over, witnesses emphasized the harm the travel ban would impose on women by divesting them of their bodily autonomy and depriving them of “the agency to make decisions about their own bodies and futures,” one said, with a profound adverse impact on their “emotional and physical well-being.”  

Others spoke eloquently about the devastating harms of depriving pregnant women forced to leave the state for abortion care without their support networks. Referring to it as “insidious,” one witness stressed that a “key objective is to silence women,” since it forces them to travel out of state “alone and unaided” and “would have her remain silent, asking for no help from her loved ones out of fear they could be sued for supporting her.”

Likewise, a witness stated that this restriction “prevents someone close to the woman to offer basic human kindness, comfort [and] aid…[and] interferes with the freedom of family to be with one another when needed.” 

Drawing upon her real-life experience, Amanda Zurawski—lead plaintiff in the Zurawski v. Texas case—detailed the devastating impact of being denied abortion care for a nonviable pregnancy because, although she was increasingly ill, doctors deemed her not close enough to death to justify terminating her pregnancy. She implored the council to recognize that “my scenario was horrific, but it definitely is not unique. Partners, like Josh, and other family and friends should not be punished for helping their loved ones access healthcare.”

Pulling together many of the oppositional themes, ARFA entreated the council to not “attempt to restrict our freedoms, violate our privacy, and make the Panhandle a hostile place for its citizens and visitors” by enacting an ordinance that “seeks to weaponize Amarillo roads with no regard the impact and harm it will bring our community.”

During our interview, London elaborated on these harms: The bounty hunter provision might be used indiscriminately against already marginalized Black and brown members of the community, and even if not the case, it would add additional layers of fear and stigmatization for this already vulnerable population.

Ultimately, the City Council opted not to take action on either version of the ordinance and scheduled the next public hearing for Tuesday, June 11. And while it may be a truism that “Amarillo is often forgotten by much of the state [and] that most of the country has never heard of [it],” the contentious debate over the travel ban is certainly bringing the city out of the shadows, as it touches on one of the thorniest questions in our post-Dobbs landscape—namely, what limits, if any, can be placed on interstate abortion travel.

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About

Shoshanna Ehrlich is professor emerita of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her books include Who Decides: The Abortion Rights of Teens and the co-authored Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. She is currently collaborating with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health on a minors’ abortion rights and access project.