Councilmember Brianne Nadeau
Councilmember Brianne Nadeau Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In a post-Roe world, there’s not much D.C. could do to preserve abortion access if a hostile Republican Congress looks to ban it in the District. But lawmakers are trying to come up with some new policies they can pass to make a difference on the margins.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau is currently drafting a bill dubbed the “Human Rights Sanctuary Amendment Act” that would make a series of changes largely designed to protect women from other states seeking abortions in the District, according to a copy forwarded to Loose Lips from her office. The exact language is still being finalized, her staffers say, as they gauge interest from other councilmembers in introducing the bill alongside Nadeau.

It seems a decent bet she’ll find plenty of support among her colleagues, considering abortion access is one of the rare areas where virtually the entire Council can agree (witness lawmakers ranging from Chairman Phil Mendelson to Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George speaking out in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft decision on a major abortion case). The challenge for the Council is finding something new they can do on abortion policy that they haven’t already done—lawmakers passed a major codification of Roe’s protections into law just two years ago.

D.C.’s limited home rule powers means that Nadeau, who is running for re-election this year, can only do so much with her legislation, but at the least, she’s designing the bill to respond to the draconian laws targeting women seeking abortions and abortion providers in other, Republican-controlled states. One of her bill’s main provisions would bar the District government from providing any information or using any “money, facilities, property, equipment, personnel, or other resources” to assist an interstate investigation seeking to enforce those laws, mirroring “sanctuary city” protections that prohibit the government from assisting federal immigration enforcement efforts.

The bill would similarly ban D.C.’s cooperation with civil cases targeting people seeking abortions (and those assisting them), in a nod to legislation in Texas offering private citizens up to $10,000 if they successfully sue someone pursuing an abortion within six weeks of becoming pregnant. Other states have taken up consideration of similar policies, and it’s easy to imagine many others doing so if Roe falls.

Nadeau’s legislation even goes a step further on civil cases, giving anyone who has a judgment entered against them in such an abortion-related civil suit the right to turn around and sue the person targeting them. They’d be able to pursue monetary damages and the reimbursement of attorney’s fees and court costs stemming from that legal action. Who knows whether anyone in this unenviable position would be eager to re-litigate the issue in court, but at least it’s a novel idea.

Other cities in liberal states, like New York and California, have pursued similar efforts to become “abortion safe havens,” but these policies would largely be novel ones, reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court’s steady erosion of abortion access under the current hard-right supermajority there. This exercise could seem relatively academic, but there’s decent evidence to suggest that many people coming to D.C. for abortion care hail from out of state—the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a 2019 survey that 69 percent of people seeking an abortion in D.C. came from elsewhere. Maryland’s laws are relatively expansive, but Virginia’s abortion restrictions are still pretty strict (a relic of decades of Republican control in the legislature).

A determined GOP Congress could wipe away much of D.C.’s abortion access pretty easily, of course. The city has long been banned from spending federal money to subsidize abortions, and there have been attempts to prohibit it in D.C. entirely over the years.

But even if the fears of D.C. leaders are realized and Republicans pull off a ban in the city, laws on the books like the one Nadeau is proposing could still make a small difference. In a stateless city, that’s about as much as the Council could probably hope for.

So what comes next? Nadeau’s acting chief of staff, David Meni, says she’ll move the bill on a permanent basis rather than pursuing the much faster emergency process. That means it will need to move through a committee and get a hearing before heading to the full Council for votes, so don’t expect to see it pass overnight.

Another matter to watch: At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson was already working on a separate bill to protect anyone who assists with a self-induced abortion even before the Supreme Court’s big leak. There could be new urgency on that legislation too.