Lawsuit seeks to block Lubbock’s ordinance aimed at outlawing abortions

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas are suing over the West Texas city’s “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance.

A red and black sign posted near a sidewalk that reads: "Vote NO Against Proposition A Protect your Rights"

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued the city of Lubbock on Monday over a voter-approved “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that seeks to outlaw abortions in the West Texas city’s limits.

The ordinance — which the lawsuit says is unconstitutional — was passed by local voters earlier this month over the opposition of City Council members who warned it could not be enforced and would prompt a costly legal fight.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court and seeks to stop the abortion ban from taking effect on June 1. The city, in a news release, said it would "vigorously defend this ordinance and looks forward to presenting that defense in court."

Some two dozen cities have sought to ban abortions in their limits. Most of them have been in Texas but Lubbock is the largest and the first to have an abortion provider — making it a legal test case for the burgeoning “sanctuary city for the unborn” movement. Planned Parenthood opened a clinic to offer birth control and other services there last year and began providing abortions this spring.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar measures, but those cities weren’t home to abortion providers and had differently worded ordinances. The lawsuit was dropped.

The Lubbock ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits. “The unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings,” under the ordinance, can sue the provider or someone who assists another person in getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic

The ordinance does not make an exception for people pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The lawsuit comes just after the Legislature passed what abortion rights advocates say is one of the most extreme abortion restrictions nationwide, which would ban abortions as early as six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant. That bill, similar to the Lubbock ordinance, allows for private citizens to sue abortion providers and those who assist someone getting an abortion in violation of the law. They would not need to have a connection to the provider or to someone who received an abortion to sue.

That legislation is headed to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled he will sign it into law.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court also announced that it would hear a case — concerning a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks — that could lead to new limits on abortion rights.

The lawsuit was filed by Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas Surgical Health Services on behalf of its staff and patients in Lubbock. It is represented in the suit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and other lawyers.

The lawsuit says the ordinance imposes significant liability on people who perform — or help someone get — an abortion in Lubbock.

“The legal and financial risk to the health center and to its personnel personally is too great,” the complaint says. “Even if they were to successfully defend against a civil suit, the litigation costs from the barrage of civil lawsuits encouraged by the ordinance would be crushing. Indeed, the Ordinance has already forced Plaintiffs to cancel abortion-related appointments to avoid potential liability.”'

Anti-abortion advocates who pushed for the ordinance's passage said they were not worried about the lawsuit.

Jim Baxa, with West Texas for Life, a proponent of the ordinance, said he is confident they’ll prevail in court.

Mark Lee Dickson, the East Texas pastor behind the "sanctuary city for the unborn" movement, said an appeals court ruling prevents federal courts from stopping the ordinance from being enforced by private citizens.

“Apparently Planned Parenthood did not agree with the results of the election on May 1st,” he said in a statement on Facebook. "We will be looking forward to seeing more cities outlaw abortion in the near future and many lawsuits against Planned Parenthood come June 1st," he added.

And Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesperson for Texas Right to Life who graduated from a Lubbock university, said Planned Parenthood was “throwing a hodgepodge of complaints at the court and seeing what they can get to stick.”

“The ordinance language is solid and was carefully drafted in expectation of the abortion industry filing a lawsuit,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, representatives of Planned Parenthood said in written statements that they were standing up for the right of patients to make private medical decisions.

Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the anti-abortion ordinances are "malicious," and "stigmatize abortion care, hurt those who provide it, and shame the people who need access to it."

The lawsuit says the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lubbock is the only abortion provider within 300 miles.

A little more than 60% of voters supported the “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance in the May election, with about 34,300 people casting ballots. There are 179,800 registered voters in Lubbock County, though the ordinance was put to a citywide vote.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.