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The Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn movement continues to gain political momentum among pro-life organizations and grassroots advocates. Resolved to defend the dignity of every unborn human life, pro-lifers are willing to campaign city by city if necessary to outlaw abortion. In an attempt to thwart these pro-life gains, pro-abortion supporters often cite economic ramifications, such as litigation costs, boycotts, and loss of tax revenue, as rationale for opposing Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn (SCUs). Consequently, those who are moderately pro-life or morally apathetic to the issue may oppose SCUs, not on moral principle, but for economic concerns. Therefore, this article will examine these economic concerns.
The Landscape of Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn
Passing city ordinances outlawing abortion is a fairly new development. On June 11, 2019, the City of Waskom, TX became the first city in the nation to pass an enforceable city ordinance outlawing abortion within the city limits. The ordinance passed unanimously. Subsequently, thirty-eight cities have passed pro-life city ordinances.[i]
Currently, there are thirty-seven SCUs in the United States. Omaha, TX recanted its pro-life ordinance on October 14, 2019. Thirty-four SCUs are in Texas, two in Nebraska, and one in Ohio. The largest SCU is in Lubbock, TX, which has a population of 264,000 residents. The smallest is Impact, TX, with a population of 20 residents. If we remove the city of Lubbock, which is an outlier, the average population of a sanctuary city is approximately 1,315 residents, and the median is 989 residents. From this data, we can conclude that the majority of SCUs are smaller towns in Texas. Geographically, the majority of SCUs are located either in northeast or northwest Texas.
However, the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn movement will not be confined to Texas. Certainly, smaller, more conservative towns in Texas will continue to push for city ordinances outlawing abortion. The Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn website lists nearly 40 potential cities, most of which are in Texas. As the Legislative Director of Ohio Right to Life, I can confirm that there are also cities in Ohio interested in adopting or are currently drafting pro-life ordinances. Naples, Florida is also listed as a potential SCU.
There have also been some setbacks. Eight cities have denied passing city ordinances outlawing abortion. Regrettably, Austin, TX has been labeled as a “city of death.” On September 10, 2019, the Austin city council allocated $150,000 of taxpayer funds to help provide abortions.
The legal fees of litigation are one of the primary concerns of cities in discerning when or not to adopt a city ordinance that outlaws abortion. The argument that passing sanctuary cities is unconstitutional and will garner an expensive lawsuit endures, even in smaller, conservative-leaning, pro-life cities. Cities do not want to foot the bill for expensive lawsuits, especially if they are small.
To date, there have been two lawsuits. In February 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a challenge on behalf of the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund, two pro-abortion groups. The seven Texas SCUs included in the lawsuit were Joaquin, Naples, Rusk, Tenaha, Waskom, and Wells. The ACLU ultimately dropped the lawsuit after these seven cities amended their ordinances. Thanks to lawyers and activists such as Mark Lee Dickson and Jonathan F. Mitchell, who helped draft the ordinances and provide free legal counsel, the cities did not expend any money on legal fees. This also helped signal to other SCUs that there is no legal basis or precedence to challenge these pro-life ordinances.
The second lawsuit occurred in Lubbock, TX. Planned Parenthood opened an abortion clinic in Lubbock in 2020. The city council rejected a proposed SCU ordinance on legal grounds in 2020. In response, local pro-lifers gathered enough signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot. On May 1, 2021, the voters backed the ordinance, and Lubbock became the first SCU with an abortion clinic in the city limits.
Planned Parenthood sued to block the sanctuary city ordinance from taking effect. However, like the Texas heartbeat law, the Lubbock ordinance is enforced by private action. Private citizens enforce the law instead of government officials. For this reason, a federal judge dismissed the case based on a lack of jurisdiction.[ii] The City of Lubbock said that if additional litigation was filed, they would “vigorously defend the ordinance.” Life won in Lubbock, and Planned Parenthood was forced to shut its doors.[iii] We see in this case, SCUs are an effective means of challenging the current status quo and culture of death.
Boycotts and Loss of Tax Revenue
Lebanon was the first city in Ohio to pass a SCU ordinance on May 25, 2021. Lebanon has an estimated population of 20,642 residents.[iv]Its neighbor, Mason, OH is also currently considering whether to follow suit. Opponents of the SCU in Mason and the local media claim that Lebanon businesses are worried about boycotts of local businesses.
The local news media claims that small businesses in Lebanon are facing backlash due to the SCU ordinance.[v] They cite a survey conducted by Main Street Lebanon, a downtown development organization, and Michael Cook, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. They claim that several businesses anonymously commented that they are worried about boycotts. One of their statistics asserts that “11 of the 38 businesses were experiencing a dip in business, most of which were retail, but only 20% of restaurants said they saw an increase in sales after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.”
It is important to understand the study within its proper context. Cook only surveyed 38 businesses. There are one hundred and forty-six members of Main Street Lebanon. This means that only twenty-six percent of businesses responded to the survey, which does not make it a reliable, scientific survey. Cook himself notes that this was not a definitive study that directly surveyed the economic impact of SCUs. Indeed, it is also important to note that Cook provided opponent testimony against enacting a SCU ordinance. The media only used Cook’s survey to continue the pro-abortion narrative.
The news media has also cited campaigns on social media threatening to boycott small towns in Lebanon. Although some time has passed, I have been unable to find widespread boycotts on social media. I did come across a Facebook group called Lebanon the “Sanctuary City,” which has 370 members.[vi] In its pictures, the group mostly cites Michael Cook’s survey. Additionally, it seems that a member of the Miami Valley Art Quilt Network, Carroll Schleppi declined to present one of her quilts because Lebanon did not require their employees to be vaccinated and the passage of the SCU ordinance.[vii] They also posted a video on September 25, 2021, featuring what appears to be five Facebook posts about pro-abortion advocates boycotting Lebanon.[viii]
In my research, I contacted Lebanon’s City Auditor. He could not provide details about boycotts or whether businesses have lost income. However, he does track the city’s governmental revenue sources. The city’s primary revenue source is a local earnings tax collected by Lebanon employers from their employees. The majority of these earnings come from the larger employers in the area, such as manufacturers or banks. A boycott on the smaller businesses, such as restaurants or boutiques, would have a smaller impact on Lebanon’s government finances. He stated that there has been no indication that any city revenue has declined since the Sanctuary City designation. In fact, the various events and festivals that Lebanon has hosted during the past few months have been well attended. Therefore, if there have been boycotts in Lebanon, they have been ineffective at creating enough Impact to result in social change.
I was also able to obtain the following information from other SCUs in Texas that help prove pro-life city ordinances are supported by constituents. The Mayor of Big Spring, TX, which passed its SCU ordinance in January 2020, said, "Our sales tax revenue projections from 2021 have outpaced our estimates by over one million. And we're still growing. That's a million more than we budgeted to receive." Mike Cummings, Councilman from Joaquin, TX said, “We were warned of the detrimental economic impact this would have on our city, should we decide to adopt an ordinance effectively outlawing abortion inside our city! We have found this to be quite the opposite. We have families moving in to raise their kids in a community where we chose to stand for life when we had the chance! We have had several new businesses start-up in our city and have more moving in. Two years later, we do not regret our decision. God has blessed our city because of this!” While these are somewhat anecdotal pieces of information, I believe that we will soon have the data from public city records to support these remarks.
On a national level, pro-abortion supporters are also beginning to change tactics. For example, in Texas, many have called for a boycott of the state due to its strong pro-life laws. The City Council in Portland, Oregon rescinded its plan to boycott Texas businesses. The proposal was overturned because of worries that it would be "punitive to Texans who, are in fact, the most affected."[ix] Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano made a similar statement and instead pushed for federal reform and relief.[x] I believe that pro-life advocates can use these statements to push back against celebrities who might boycott local events. Are they truly in favor of helping people, or do they prefer to punish others economically based on a political ideology? Should we have some concern for those who are trying to make a living by supporting larger events?
The economic data currently available does not support the assumption that adopting city ordinances that prohibit abortion will have a negative economic impact. I believe that this is due in part to the fact that most of these towns are fairly small and do not necessarily rely on those businesses which can be easily boycotted, such as restaurants or nonessential stores. Most of the SCUs are also located in those areas of the United States that are staunchly pro-life. Pro-life lawyers and advocates have also provided pro bono, legal counsel.
Moreover, the cities of Lubbock and Lebanon illustrate that larger cities can also adopt SCU ordinances without suffering economically. Despite the claims of the press, there have not been any widescale boycotts that have caused businesses to close, and city revenue has also not been affected. In fact, the opposite has happened, and people have rallied to support these pro-life cities.
[i] Most of the information about Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn can be found here: https://sanctuarycitiesfortheunborn.com/
[iv] See United States Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/lebanoncityohio/POP060210
[v] See WCPO Cincinnati – Economic Concerns loom in Mason as abortion ordinance awaits proposal https://www.wcpo.com/news/crime/mason/economic-concern-looms-in-mason-as-abortion-ordinance-awaits-proposal. On August 9, 2021, Erin Glynn from the Cincinnati Enquirer also published a news article “Lebanon businesses deal with abortion ban” that outlined the purported decrease in sales.
[vi] See Facebook page Lebanon the “Sanctuary City”: https://www.facebook.com/groups/611672629797090/about
[vii] See Facebook page Lebanon the “Sanctuary City” post: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=2704480489851114&set=g.611672629797090
[viii]See the Lebanon the “Sanctuary City” video: https://www.facebook.com/100008675686528/videos/g.611672629797090/284399369918178
[ix] See Portland scraps Texas boycott, allocated abortion funds: https://apnews.com/article/health-boycotts-texas-oregon-portland-9daaec0f297b8160eb7a30e07838a4a6
[x] See Vanity Fair “We Will Boycott You”: How Hollywood is Responding so Far to Texas’s Abortion Law: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/09/we-will-boycott-you-how-hollywood-is-responding-so-far-to-texass-abortion-law
Ohio Right to Life