Pro-choice activists are calling for San Antonio City Council to pass legislation aimed at decriminalizing abortion locally, but that effort would be more of a symbolic gesture as most clinics are likely to remain closed across Texas amid a statewide ban on abortion.
About 30 people gathered in downtown’s Main Plaza on Thursday to demand that the council hold a special meeting in July — when council meetings are usually suspended for the month — to discuss legislation similar to the GRACE Act that Austin City Council will consider later this month. A similar measure failed in El Paso earlier this month.
Activists criticized San Antonio leaders for not taking action sooner.
“Sure, everybody deserves a vacation, but we’re in a state of emergency,” said Rachell Tucker, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “Women are going to suffer … we need them to act and we need them to act now.”
The GRACE Act, which stands for Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone, is essentially a policy recommendation from the City Council that police should make investigating abortion their lowest priority and that city funds shouldn’t be used to solicit, catalog, report, or investigate reports of abortion.
“The GRACE Act can’t solve every aspect of … this situation that we find ourselves in right now. But if it does reduce fear for women who are seeking this vital type of health care, then yeah, we’re gonna go for it,” said Sarah Johnson, who volunteered to register people to vote during the rally.
But city councils in Texas can’t tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to most city charters, including Austin’s and San Antonio‘s, making the GRACE Act more of a statement of preference rather than a mandate.
“The GRACE Act does not supersede state law,” Austin Councilman José “Chito” Vela (D4) wrote on that city’s policy message board. “It is a statement of policy that provides guidelines for the city on how to prioritize enforcement of the abortion ban among hundreds of more important crimes, and it determines the amount of funds which can be dedicated to the project. It does not conflict with the state’s designation of abortion as a crime, and it does not prohibit or limit the investigation of any crime.”
In San Antonio, special meetings can be convened if the mayor, city manager or three council members submit a written request to the city clerk, according to San Antonio’s charter.
Council members Teri Castillo (D5), Ana Sandoval (D7), Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Mario Bravo (D1) indicated Thursday ahead of the rally that they would support calling a special meeting during the July recess to adopt a local GRACE Act.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, despite overwhelming support for legal abortion access, is an attack on a person’s autonomy of their own bodies, lives, and futures,” Castillo said in an email to the San Antonio Report. “This decision leaves millions of people vulnerable to criminalization for accessing health care.”
The logistics of gathering enough members during July, however, may prove difficult as many use the month to take vacations out of town.
So far, no council member has filed a formal request to consider a local GRACE Act.
“Criminalizing those who seek basic care will create a hostile and harmful future for far too many,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in an email. “We are evaluating what can be done locally. It’s a confusing landscape with different state laws on the books.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) agreed on the point that there are “still a lot of questions to be answered on this issue,” and said the council would work with the City Attorney’s Office “and others, to discuss what can and cannot be done at the local level.”
Prosecuting those seeking or performing abortions is not on the minds of residents that Councilman John Courage (D9) said he has encountered at recent forums and community conversations regarding crime.
“They are most concerned about domestic violence, violent crime, human trafficking and theft. In reality, SAPD is already stretched thin protecting our community and responding to criminal activity,” Courage said.
Except in cases of coercion, force or criminally negligent care, he anticipates that “prosecuting rumors of an alleged abortion will be a very low priority.”
Even if there’s little the city can do to materially change conditions under the abortion ban, Bravo said, “holding a meeting to discuss these issues probably is something that a lot of members of our community would appreciate right now and … would lend some comfort.”
He said he would support language similar to the GRACE Act as long as it doesn’t run afoul of state law, as doing so could attract lawsuits from state lawmakers.
Council resolutions in San Antonio reflect council policy recommendations and priorities within the parameters of San Antonio city government and state law, said City Attorney Andy Segovia in a statement.
“We have had preliminary conversations with at least one council office about what a San Antonio resolution may reflect in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision.”
At the rally in Main Plaza, Tucker, the organizer, said the city should not be afraid to challenge state laws with a GRACE Act that has more teeth than a resolution.
“We need them to take ballsy, bold action to protect us here,” she said.
On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade via Dobbs v. Jackson, ending federal protections for abortion. Texas’ “trigger law,” which bans nearly all abortions, will become effective 30 days after the U.S. Supreme Court formally issues its judgment — but the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that Texas can enforce its abortion ban from 1925 in the meantime.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales and at least four other Texas district attorneys have said they don’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban, but all three clinics providing abortion services in San Antonio before the ban have paused operations.
“The difficulty is that clinics won’t provide abortion services, even if abortion-related crimes are not investigated or prosecuted locally,” South Texas College of Law professor Charles “Rocky” Rhodes told the Texas Tribune. “The doctors and the facilities are likely to face state licensure and other administrative consequences even without a criminal prosecution.”