Some U.S. cities mull ‘sanctuary for life’ status, others aim to protect abortion rights

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June left the states to determine how to regulate abortion access. But some cities and local governments are making their own decisions on the matter.

Many municipalities across the U.S. are taking a stance, seeking to either protect abortion rights or ban the procedure.

San Clemente, a lush beach town in Southern California just south of Laguna Beach, decided to ban abortion by passing a resolution designating it a so-called “sanctuary for life.” Written and introduced by Councilman Steven Knoblock, the measure would have been purely symbolic — since abortion is legal in California and there are no clinics based in the city.

Steve Knoblock at the microphone, with his laptop on the desk in front of him.
San Clemente City Councilmember Steve Knoblock speaks at a special council meeting at the San Clemente Community Center on Aug. 6. (Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
A woman in a straw bowler holds a sign above her head saying: San Clemente Deserves Better, Vote 4 Betteh, with other signs visible saying: Church does not equal State..
Demonstrators hold signs at the San Clemente City Council meeting Aug. 6. (Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Before the resolution could go before the council, protests prompted the city to ditch its efforts to designate it an abortion-free zone and removed the measure from the Aug. 16 agenda.

In Florida, where abortion is legal up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, one area of the state became a sanctuary for life two years ago. The Santa Rosa County commission considered the designation in 2020 — but ultimately decided to leave it up to voters. Floridians in that area approved a referendum in November of that year, making it the first area in the Sunshine State to become a “pro-life sanctuary.”

A similar effort is underway in San Angelo, Texas. The city garnered strong support at a City Council meeting to push for a "sanctuary for life" designation, but the city councilors there also put it before voters in a special election in November. All the councilmembers claimed that they were anti-abortion but that they felt it was necessary for voters to make the decision, according to the local Fox station.

“What we're seeing here is more symbolic in nature, and they can easily be trumped by state policies and more so federal policies,” Trimmel Gomes, a nonpartisan political commentator based in Florida, told Yahoo News.

“But as I mentioned, seeing the reversal of Roe v. Wade, that has turned the tide to where things are going back more, so the local level where folks who want to ban abortion are feeling empowered to do so.”

That feeling of empowerment is strong in states like Texas, where reproductive rights have taken a hit since the Supreme Court decision.

A man wearing a pink T-shirt saying Don't be a d*** marches alongside people carrying signs saying things like: Abortion is a right and Abortion is health care.
Abortion rights activists in Texas march on June 24 to the Austin State Capitol after the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court, in Austin. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

In May 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the “Heartbeat Act” into law, banning abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That bill went into effect in September 2021, but is now enforceable with the overturning of Roe.

Dozens of Texas cities have passed a “Sanctuary City for the Unborn” ordinance within the past three years, and there are now somewhere in the range of 50 such cities nationwide, according to Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, a website that tracks the ordinances.

But while some municipalities are taking an anti-abortion stance, others are trying to become sanctuary cities to protect reproductive rights. Cities such as Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Austin, Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta are seeking that designation.

Seattle recently became a sanctuary city for abortion rights, and Mayor Bruce Harrell signed several abortion access protections into law on Aug. 15.

“Today, we are taking steps to ensure abortion and reproductive health care is safe and accessible to residents and visitors,” Harrell said before signing four bills.

Demonstrators, many wearing masks, carry banners saying: Defend Roe v. Wade and Safe & Legal and My Body, My Choice.
Demonstrators in Seattle rally in support of abortion rights near Pike Place Market on May 3. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

One of them establishes Seattle as a sanctuary city for women seeking an abortion and prohibits Seattle police from helping out-of-state law enforcement with warrants related to abortion.

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in June, some state authorities announced repercussions for women who travel out of state to get an abortion or for the medical professionals who help them, complicating the access to reproductive care in places where it is legal.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a dangerous and decades-long leap backwards that will lead to significant and harmful consequences for women and all those seeking abortions,” Harrell said in a statement, “with disproportionate impacts falling on women of color. We must use every tool available to safeguard fundamental civil rights of privacy and autonomy.”

In Washington, D.C., councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau proposed legislation back in May for the district to become a “human rights sanctuary.”

Brianne Nadeau listens at the microphone with a nameplate in front of her saying: Ms. Nadeau.
Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau on May 2, 2017, at the D.C. City Council. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi, in a green suit, with rows of women dressed in green or white on the steps of the U.S. Capitol behind her displaying green cards with white lettering saying: Protect Women's Reproductive Freedom.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads a news conference July 15 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., with fellow Democratic congresswomen, to highlight their upcoming vote on the Women's Health Protection Act. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The proposal would not only support those seeking abortions, but also those looking for gender-affirming care and contraception, and it would also protect the right to same-sex marriage. The bill aims to protect reproductive freedoms and what it describes as the “assault” on human rights “perpetrated” by the high court.

So far, 14 states have either banned or enacted restrictions on abortion access, and more states could move in that direction.

“Activists are really concerned about this,” Gomes said. “And when you're looking at organizations, health care organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, they have stated that safe legal abortion is a necessary component of women's health care in the U.S.”

“So [abortion restrictions are] creating sort of like a black market, if you will — at least, abortion rights activists are very concerned on that front,” he added. “With these increases of attempts to restrict safe and legal abortions, it will just make things worse and be detrimental to women's health.”