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Online message boards give closer look inside Amarillo’s heated abortion debate

Anti-abortion supporters listen as members of the Amarillo City Council meet to consider a so-called abortion travel ban during a work session Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 in Amarillo. The council has debated the issue since October.
Anti-abortion supporters listen as members of the Amarillo City Council meet to consider a so-called abortion travel ban during a work session Dec. 19. The council has debated the issue since October. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Ever since the so-called abortion travel ban crossed the desks of Amarillo’s city leaders in October, a majority of members did something very few municipal Texas lawmakers before them have — questioned it.

Ordinances banning motorists from using city roads to transport women en route to an abortion have already passed in Odessa and Little-River Academy, as well as Lubbock, Cochran, Goliad, Mitchell and Dawson counties.

The Amarillo City Council announced in December they’ll continue considering the ordinance, but it wouldn’t necessarily look the same. Mayor Cole Stanley was working on an alternative draft that would likely ban medication used for abortions. The new version also left out one big part of the proposed travel ban ordinance — the travel ban itself.

The exclusion of the ordinance’s original purpose has enflamed the ire of anti-abortion advocates, and brought a new level of pressure and tension to this already heated debate in the Panhandle.

The drama has unfolded online — through the city’s public message board where some council members are skeptical of the ordinance’s purpose, and also on social media, where Mark Lee Dickson, the creator of the ordinance, calls out city leaders.

Stanley said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that the city has been trying to reach out to everyone to combat misinformation and “to put out there that you should ask good questions and make sure you understand what you’re in favor of.”

“I am concerned that most of our citizens do not understand that this draft does not do what it has been represented to do,” Stanley wrote online on Dec. 29.

Stanley said he was working on a revised version of the ordinance when council members learned of a citizen-led petition circulating. The petition would force the council’s hand on voting to approve, amend or reject the original 18-page ordinance. If the council still rejects the ordinance, then it could be put on the local ballot.

Dickson, who is originally from Longview and not an Amarillo resident, told the Tribune members of the initiating committee started the petition because they were “uncomfortable” with the direction the city council was going with the ordinance.

Stanley asked on the message board if the council’s time would be better spent discussing how the current state law already gives private citizens the right to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion.

“MLD specifically told me in our last conversation that ‘any person’ could not sue ‘anyone who aids or abets someone in carrying out an abortion,’” Stanley wrote. “Obviously, this is not in line with state law.”

Stanley also questioned how the ordinance is different from state law — calling it a reprint of what the state has already accomplished.

In an interview with the Tribune, Stanley said while they are an anti-abortion council, they are trying to avoid stepping into the state’s jurisdiction.

“I can’t just go out and call something a felony because I want to and put it into an ordinance,” Stanley said.

With this in mind, Stanley’s version of the ordinance would focus on possession of abortion-inducing drugs. The most that could get imposed then would be a fine and a class C misdemeanor — the same level of crime as a traffic ticket. But when the petition was brought forward, Stanley said it changed things.

“I think it took us a step backwards,” Stanley said. “Why pursue this draft when it’s going to be more symbolic than it is enforceable? Why not allow the process to complete itself through the voice of the petitioners?”

Stanley said working with Dickson, a director with Right to Life of East Texas, has been challenging. Stanley referenced one social media post — where Dickson said Stanley “wrongly implied” what state law does — and said Dickson “conveniently” left out other laws from the health and safety codes.

“Though that may be a true, factual statement, SB 8 isn’t the only law on the books,” Stanley said. “So you have to be very specific when you’re questioning him.”

Stanley added, “If you have a good ordinance that’s healthy and the right thing to do for the community, then answer all the questions. Not just the ones that you can make appear certain.”

Council Member Tom Scherlen, one of the most outspoken critics of the ordinance, replied in the forum. Scherlen is against abortion, but has been adamantly opposed to the enforcement mechanism of the ordinance, which he previously compared to how Nazis had enforced their laws in World War II.

He said they need to make an attempt to explain to citizens how the state law is effective as is.

“I believe our citizens are being led down a path of untruths about what state law actually does,” wrote Scherlen, who said he would still be willing to talk about punishing people for possession of abortion-inducing drugs. “In reality, I think we will be wasting our time because MLD has already taken this to the next step, which I feel will hurt our city in the long run.”

Scherlen has not refrained from sharing his opinion of Dickson, and neither has Dickson. In a recent social media post, Dickson accused Scherlen of lying in an interview with the Amarillo Globe-News.

“At this point, there are some council members I will not meet with alone,” Dickson told the Tribune. “I’m making sure I have an Amarillo resident there with me because I do not want to be misquoted or misrepresented.”

Dickson said signatures for the petition are being collected at more than 50 churches in Amarillo. The group needs roughly 5,671 verified signatures from Amarillo voters.

“While every city and county we have worked with has had us present and explain the ordinance under consideration, the Amarillo City Council did not give that opportunity,” Dickson said.

Dickson also stated that both Stanley and Scherlen — two Republicans — appeared to be going against the Republican Party platform by criticizing the enforcement mechanism of the ordinance.

Council Member Josh Craft agreed with tabling the discussion until the petition comes in. Craft also shared the exact text from the Senate Bill 8, which passed in 2021, that allowed people to sue for aiding an abortion in Texas.

“If legal, or anyone, can explain to me what the ordinance in the petition will accomplish that isn’t already covered in state law, I would like to hear it,” Craft wrote.