New bill would make D.C. a ‘sanctuary city’ for those seeking abortion


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D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau introduced legislation Friday that would create a “human rights sanctuary” in the District for anyone traveling to the city to get an abortion.

The District already has a law on the books protecting the right to an abortion, but officials this week pledged to do everything they could to strengthen protections after the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting a majority of justices are poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The bill, if passed, would prevent the District from aiding in any interstate investigation seeking to penalize people for coming to the city to get or perform an abortion. It also would create a private right of action against parties that “successfully bring Texas-style bounty claims” against anyone engaging in the protected conduct in the District, noted Nadeau (D-Ward 1), referring to the Texas law allowing private citizens to sue people involved in performing an abortion after the restrictive six-week window.

Additionally, the new bill would extend protections to people coming to the District to obtain contraception or gender-affirming health care, people engaging in lawful sexual conduct, and same-sex couples living in the District. Some have feared the rights to contraception and same-sex marriage, similarly enshrined in landmark Supreme Court decisions, could be in jeopardy as well under the logic Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. applied to his draft opinion on overturning Roe.

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Nine council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), joined Nadeau in introducing the bill. “It is rare that we get a sneak peek into a court decision that will have such a devastating impact to our residents, and it is clear from the draft opinion that even more than the right to abortion is at stake,” Nadeau said in a statement.

“Under Samuel Alito’s regressive, political, results-oriented reading of the Constitution, all substantive due process and equal protection rights, such as the rights to marriage, non-procreative sexual conduct, and the use of contraception are under threat. With this legislation I am hoping we can solidify the rights of our own residents as well as those who may now be forced to travel here to preserve their own,” she continued.

Like the District, 16 states have laws on the books explicitly protecting the right to an abortion. But about half of states have laws that, if Roe is overturned, will ban or severely restrict abortion. The new legislation aims to help those who could be criminalized or penalized in some way in their home states for seeking abortion.

At a news conference Tuesday at Planned Parenthood in the District, one doctor, Serina Floyd, said she recently saw a patient from Texas who flew to the District to get an abortion, since the Texas law meant she could no longer legally get an abortion there.

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According to federal health data, more than two-thirds of people who obtained an abortion in the District in 2019 came from other states. While abortion rights proponents have applauded its protective laws, the city is in a position unlike other blue jurisdictions. Because the District is not a state, Congress has oversight of its laws.

This week, city leaders said they feared that if Republicans take control of Congress after the November midterm elections, they could seek to ban or severely restrict abortion at the federal level. Congress already prohibits the District from using local dollars to subsidize abortions for women on Medicaid.

Appearing with doctors and nurses at Planned Parenthood, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued an impassioned plea for statehood on Tuesday, while calling on Congress to codify federal abortion protections.

“This decision, if this is the decision, poses a unique risk to the District of Columbia,” Norton said. “It poses a risk to women across the country. But when it comes to the District, we are at special peril. The Republican Congress is likely to use this decision to try to ban abortion in D.C. Other states will be left to decide for themselves. Until the District gets statehood, we cannot make that decision for ourselves.”

The bill to make the District the 51st state has passed the House twice but has stalled in the Senate, where not all Democrats have agreed to support it.

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