In Texas, the Fight Over Abortion Has Gotten Hyperlocal

People in the small town of Marshall, Texas, first noticed the billboard on a sweltering summer Friday in 2020. Posted on the stretch of U.S. 59 near the local high school, it declared: “Abortion Is a Blessing.”

Marshall mobilized quickly. Within a week, vandals had stripped the billboard’s display, Facebook groups had held prayer protests, and anti-abortion activists were planning counter billboards (“Abortion Is NOT a Blessing”). Within a month, city officials in neighboring Carthage were considering laws banning future “offensive” advertising.

Few beyond the local papers took notice. At the time, national reproductive health journalism was devoted to tracking the anti-abortion record of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and the use of pandemic power by some state governors to restrict abortions. But in June 2022, the high court stripped the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Without widespread national or state-level protections, abortion access was back up for debate. There was a new local emphasis on the problem: Those trying to preserve access suddenly found themselves in city halls and county courts across the country, trying to limit the intense harms being imposed on pregnant people in their communities. This required new attention—and strategy—from abortion-access advocates.

Texas has always been an anti-abortion hot spot. Long before Dobbs, it had infamously imposed more abortion restrictions than almost any other state. Abortion-seeking Texans (often low-income, and often women of color) had already been forced to drive more than 240 miles to get the procedure done outside Texas or else give birth in a state ranked last in health coverage and 29th in maternal health, according to recent reporting of 44 states’ outcomes.

But all these recent “victories” haven’t satisfied anti-abortion crusaders. They’re now looking to the convergence of state courts, county laws, and city ordinances to further restrict abortion care. One set of hyperlocal restrictions polices pregnant people’s use of roads. In the past year, four rural Texas counties (Lubbock, Cochran, Mitchell, and Goliad) have joined cities like Odessa and Little River-Academy to pass ordinances banning the use of public roads to transport abortion seekers out of the state. Votes on similar city measures are likely on the way.

These travel laws are a legal nightmare, pitting the well-established federal constitutional right to interstate travel against states’ strong intrastate regulatory powers. Enforcement is equally fraught, with travel restriction laws deputizing private citizens to sue others helping a person seek an out-of-state abortion.

Citizen-enforced travel restrictions erode a pregnant person’s sense of belonging and community support. There is a long history of weaponizing reports made by a nosy neighbor, a suspicious nurse, or an abusive ex to control pregnant people. Texas’ neighbor-against-neighbor playbook poses special risks in rural areas with small communities and long driving times. For residents of those towns, making a trip to see family, participate in a bachelorette weekend in Santa Fe, or pay a visit to an out-of-state medical specialist while pregnant could all lead to accusations of abortion seeking. That could be held against you should you lose (or end) the pregnancy. Local travel restrictions—even if they aren’t widely enforced—isolate and stigmatize pregnant people.

Restrictions on the mobility of pregnant people have expanded off the road and onto campus. This month, two University of Texas professors filed suit challenging Biden administration Title IX rules and guidance that protect pregnant students. Backed by Texas’ attorney general, the professors said they would refuse to excuse absences for students seeking “elective” abortions stemming from “voluntary” sexual intercourse. Those familiar with attendance-based grading immediately recognized the fraught choices this could force on a student in need of abortion care: Stay put on campus and risk your health, seek care and risk your grade, or tell your economics professor all about your pregnancy. New, creative abortion restrictions pin pregnant people in place.

Local abortion restrictions are also reviving previously dormant legal debates, like whether fetuses are people. Fetal personhood is the legal term behind the anti-abortion slogan “Abortion Is Murder.” The theory goes that fetuses are people deserving of full legal protections, so abortion is legally and morally condemnable—no matter how young the mother, how violent the conception, or how medically risky the pregnancy. At its extreme, the pro-life theory could justify capital punishment for those who perform abortions.

Legal personhood has long been a popular concept on the religious right, with some of its elements already used to penalize pregnant people Still, the theory had not gained widespread legal acceptance and had generally been absent from Texas headlines. That is, until Dallas sheriff’s deputies ticketed Brandy Bottone for driving alone in an HOV lane. When questioned about her solo driving, Bottone pointed to her pregnant belly. She argued that under Texas law, post-Dobbs, there were two people in that car. A local judge dismissed the tickets.

The story sparked a round of attempts to pass pro–fetal personhood state legislation and illustrates how quickly such arguments could gain steam in Texas’ more than 450 state district courts, 500 county courts, and 900 municipal courts charged with interpreting local law. Texas’ federal and higher state courts have already paved the way. Amarillo-based federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s opinion suspending Food and Drug Administration–approved abortion medications seemed to mirror the fetal personhood playbook when it decried the drugs’ ability “to kill an unborn human.” The U.S. Supreme Court just overruled this, but that decision is not the end of the attempt to ban the drug. Similarly, Texas’ Supreme Court recently protected anti-abortion activists’ efforts to lobby a small town to become a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” where abortion would be labeled “an act of murder” and thus de facto banned. If fetal personhood theories catch on further, pregnant Texans could find their fetuses prioritized over themselves in contexts ranging from traffic court to doctors’ offices.

The state’s local abortion battles make clear that Dobbs is pushing the frontiers of abortion fights out of state and national contexts and closer and closer to pregnant people’s daily lives. And it’s not just Texas. Increasingly local anti-abortion regulations are popping up throughout the more than 40 states with restrictive abortion laws. Four state supreme courts have recently grappled with their state abortion laws, including a still-pending case in New Mexico over local restrictions. Fetal personhood concepts underlie local courts’ treatment of pregnancy criminalization all over the country, including in traditionally liberal states. These local and state legal processes have national implications, since anti-abortion movements build legal playbooks from the local level up.

This all points to the need for more local strategies to preserve abortion access. Well-known national abortion access organizations generally focus on national lawsuits, federal policies, and (more recently) state constitution claims. Of course, anyone concerned about protecting abortion access post-Dobbs should continue to support national and state efforts. However, preserving abortion rights also needs a bottom-up approach. Local laws are now one of the prime arenas for these fights, and the other side has a head start.

Further, the most recent waves of local abortion restrictions operate by isolating pregnant people within their communities—so advocacy options need to instead focus on forming connections. Individuals and organizations alike should recognize the connections between abortion and other local reproductive justice topics. When a county district attorney charges a pregnant woman when she is shot, a state appellate court keeps a pregnant woman in jail to “protect” her pregnancy, city health clinics close, or school boards implement abstinence-only sex education, pregnant people suffer similar losses to their autonomy and health (their own and that of the fetus).

Connecting through shared information also strengthens local abortion access. First, people in abortion-restricting localities should track attempts to police pregnant people—such information could form a record for potential litigation against the restrictive laws. Additionally, cities where abortion remains legal can continue to broadly communicate that information. Legal academics too can continue to pick at the knot of local, state, and national abortion access laws currently tying the hands of abortion-access advocates wary of legal liability. And finally, organizations in embattled localities should continue to find creative ways to share messages reducing abortion stigma and connecting pregnant people to reproductive health resources. Some may do so even by funding billboards, as the abortion access group Lilith Fund did in Marshall, Texas.

The past few years of abortion headlines have pointed our attention up the Supreme Court steps and to national abortion debates. But the future of abortion access lies in East Texas’ short-lived billboards. Abortion may be a blessing, but because of new, hyperlocal restrictions, it is more embattled than ever.