DC Council Tries to Protect Against Restrictive State Abortion Laws
WASHINGTON — A District of Columbia Council member wants to turn the nation’s capital into a sanctuary city for women seeking abortions who might be prosecuted or sued in their home states.
A bill introduced last week by D.C. Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau would bar anyone from assisting interstate investigations of persons getting abortions in the District of Columbia.
It also would allow lawsuits against anyone trying to collect bounties for reporting someone who gets an abortion or assists in one.
The bounties refer to what Nadeau’s bill calls “Texas-style bounty claims.” It is a reference to a Texas law that allows private citizens to sue people who perform an abortion at least six weeks after fertilization.
Nadeau’s bill was prompted by a leaked draft of a Supreme Court ruling that would eliminate a federal right to abortion. It would make abortion rights a state decision.
Texas is one of 26 states that would enforce some degree of limits on abortion. It also is one of the most restrictive.
The District of Columbia, along with 16 states, has laws that defend abortion rights.
The protections in Nadeau’s bill for women from states that would outlaw abortion take on greater importance for the District of Columbia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2019, among the 4,552 abortions performed in the District of Columbia, 68.7% were done on women from other places. It is the highest rate of abortion for out-of-state residents in the nation.
Called the Human Rights Sanctuary Amendment Act of 2022, the District of Columbia bill is partly modeled on a Connecticut law the state’s governor signed last week.
It grants an immunity from liability to Connecticut medical providers from legal action based on abortion restrictions in other states.
The proposed Human Rights Sanctuary Amendment Act grants the same kind of immunity but goes further. It also protects from liability persons coming to the District of Columbia to obtain contraception or gender-affirming health care, people engaged in lawful sexual conduct and same-sex couples.
“While I am hurt and horrified by the assault on human rights perpetrated by the Supreme Court, I am resolved to do all that I can to protect women and other district residents whose liberties are endangered,” said Nadeau, a Democrat.
Nine members of the District of Columbia Council, including its chairman, co-sponsored Nadeau’s bill, meaning it already has the majority needed to pass.
They described the draft Supreme Court opinion in the Mississippi case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization as a threat to Americans’ privacy that goes far beyond abortion. The draft was written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
“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,” Nadeau said. “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.”
Unlike other jurisdictions, the District of Columbia Council might not have final authority to decide on its own legislation.
The Constitution grants Congress oversight authority over Washington, D.C., laws, which means they could veto the Human Rights Sanctuary Amendment Act if local lawmakers approve it.
One fellow council member who expressed concern about the bill was Mary Cheh, a Democrat who also is a lawyer and law professor. She said in tweets that the provision in the bill allowing lawsuits against anyone trying to collect bounties might violate constitutional free speech protections.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s Democratic delegate to Congress, decried Alito’s draft opinion during a press conference last week.
“It poses a risk to women across the country,” Norton said. “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.”
Alito’s draft opinion was circulated to the other eight Supreme Court justices in February as they deliberated on whether to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that established a right to abortion under constitutional law. It was leaked to the media last week, most likely from a law clerk.
As the investigation continues over who leaked the draft copy, protests were spreading nationwide. Members of the Senate approved emergency legislation to increase security for the Supreme Court justices and their staff.
Congress also prepared for a crucial vote Wednesday on whether to approve a law guaranteeing abortion rights nationwide. The Senate vote is expected to fail given the lack of support from all 50 Democrats and no support from Republicans.