The city of Austin is attempting to shield its residents from prosecution under a Texas law that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, would criminalize almost all abortions — the first attempt by a major city in a red state to try to circumvent state abortion policy.

Councilmember Chito Vela is proposing a resolution that would direct the city’s police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest, and investigation of abortions its lowest priority, and would prohibit the use of city funds and city staff to investigate, catalogue, or report suspected abortions.

“This is not an academic conversation. This is a very real conversation where people’s lives could be destroyed by these criminal prosecutions,” said Vela, who shared the details of the resolution first with newspapers. “In Texas, you’re an adult at 17. We are looking at the prospect of a 17-year-old girl who has an unplanned pregnancy and is seeking an abortion [being] subjected to first-degree felony charges — up to 99 years in jail — and that’s just absolutely unacceptable.”

The state’s so-called trigger law, which would go into effect 30 days after a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe, includes the nation’s harshest criminal penalties for abortion and language vague enough that abortion-rights advocates believe it will be used to prosecute people who end their own pregnancies with abortion pills as well as abortion providers. Lizelle Herrera, 26, was arrested and charged with murder in Rio Grande City, Texas, last month after allegedly self-inducing an abortion, despite the fact that abortion is not currently a criminal offense in Texas.

The trigger law makes performing, inducing, or attempting an abortion where “an unborn child dies as a result of the offense” a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison and a $10,000 fine a first-degree felony. It only makes an exception to save the pregnant woman’s life.

According to Vela, the new resolution does not explicitly decriminalize abortion, but rather directs police to make it their lowest enforcement priority in order to avoid conflict with state law. It does, however, highlight the tension between red states and blue cities, where a new front in the battle over abortion rights is opening as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on Roe in the coming weeks.

In a statement, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk stated that he is “prepared to take the steps necessary to faithfully implement this resolution upon passage by City Council.” In 2020, the council passed a similar measure that effectively decriminalized marijuana by ending arrests and fines for low-level possession, and the police department has since followed suit.

Vela stated that he is in “ongoing discussions” with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the proposal and hopes that the department will follow the directive.

Paxton, a Republican, has been at the forefront of restricting abortion access in Texas, which has been in the spotlight since the state’s six-week abortion ban went into effect in September 2021, enforced through a private right of action.

Austin’s proposal, which aims to protect both patients and providers, is an extension of the city’s efforts to maintain abortion access in the face of state restrictions. Since 2019, for example, the city has provided logistical support for abortion access, including transportation, lodging, and child care — a model that St. Louis is now attempting to replicate.

More Texas cities could be next. Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, a group that advocates for progressive, local ballot measures, stated that similar measures are being considered in San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. If that fails, the group intends to use the local ballot initiative process.

Local officials who support abortion rights in states where access is threatened may also play an important role, according to Greer Donley, a reproductive health care professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

For example, Radnor Township in Pennsylvania recently approved an ordinance protecting abortion rights, despite the fact that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto any Republican-passed bans.